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The Return of the Woman’s Film
Postmodern Chick Flicks
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Postmodern Chick Flicks
The Return of the Woman’s Film
Senior Lecturer in Literature and Cultural Studies, University of East London
Chippenham and Eastbourne . Includes bibliographical references and index. No paragraph of this publication may be reproduced.43082—dc22 10 16 9 15 8 14 7 13 6 12 5 11 4 10 3 09 2 08 1 07 2006052792 Printed and bound in Great Britain by Antony Rowe Ltd. I. United Kingdom and other countries. Martin’s Press. No reproduction.W6G37 2007 791. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. N. or under the terms of any licence permitting limited copying issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency. copy or transmission of this publication may be made without written permission. LLC and of Palgrave Macmillan Ltd. 10010 Companies and representatives throughout the world PALGRAVE MACMILLAN is the global academic imprint of the Palgrave Macmillan division of St. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Garrett. Roberta.© ROBERTA GARRETT 2007 All rights reserved. First published 2007 by PALGRAVE MACMILLAN Houndmills. Designs and Patents Act 1988. London W1T 4LP. cm. Palgrave is a registered trademark in the European Union and other countries. Macmillan® is a registered trademark in the United States. Any person who does any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages. ISBN-13: 978– 1– 4039– 9819– 4 ISBN-10: 1– 4039– 9819– 1 hardback hardback This book is printed on paper suitable for recycling and made from fully managed and sustained forest sources. The author has asserted her right to be identified as the author of this work in accordance with the Copyright. copied or transmitted save with written permission or in accordance with the provisions of the Copyright. 90 Tottenham Court Road. ISBN–13: 978–1–4039–9819–4 (cloth) ISBN–10: 1–4039–9819–1 (cloth) 1. p. Hampshire RG21 6XS and 175 Fifth Avenue. New York. 1965– Postmodern chick flicks : the return of the woman’s film / Roberta Garrett. Basingstoke.Y. PN1995.9. Title. Motion pictures for women. Designs and Patents Act 1988.
Matty and Esme .For Paul.
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Contents List of Film Stills Acknowledgements Introduction 1 2 3 4 5 Postmodernism. Historiography and Women’s History Neo-Noir and Noir-Lite: Masculinity and Postmodernist Aesthetics in New Retro-Noir viii ix 1 15 54 92 126 155 189 209 212 222 224 Conclusion Notes Bibliography Filmography Index vii . New Hollywood and Women’s Films The Early 1990s ‘Postmodernist’ Melodrama: Female Virtue in the Consumer Age Romantic Comedy and Female Spectatorship Costume Drama.
List of Film Stills Front Cover From Far from Heaven. 2002 Featuring Julianne Moore Directed by Todd Haynes Killer Films/The Kobal Collection Introduction From Down with Love. 1993 Featuring Ros Malinger and Tom Hanks Directed by Nora Ephron TriStar/The Kobal Collection Chapter 4 From The Hours. 2003 Featuring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor Directed by Peyton Reed 20th Century Fox/Regency/The Kobal Collection/Douglas Kirkland Chapter 3 From Sleepless in Seattle. 2003 Featuring Julia Roberts Directed by Mike Newell Columbia/Revolution Studios/The Kobal Collection viii 9 115 149 173 206 . 1998 Featuring Jennifer Lopez Directed by Steven Soderbergh Universal/The Kobal Collection/Merrick Morton Conclusion From Mona Lisa Smile. 2002 Featuring Jack Rovello and Julianne Moore Directed by Stephen Daldry Paramount/Miramax/The Kobal Collection/Clive Coote Chapter 5 From Out of Sight.
Many of my friends with young children also helped out with high-quality childcare – sometimes at short notice – particularly Gemma McCarthy. supportive and generous throughout. very special thanks are owed to Paul. I am indebted to Hugh Hadfield for his technical support and to Paul and Maureen Hadfield for looking after the children while we were working. Reina Lewis and Peter Morey. My friends and colleagues at the University of East London have given me much useful help and advice over the years. Marion Herbert. Matty and Esme Hadfield for allowing me the time and space to complete this. ix . the author and publisher thank the Kobal Collection. My friends and family have supported my work in many different ways. Mona Lisa Smile and Far from Heaven. Tracey Woods and Christine Bottomley. Connie and Sue Garrett were particularly encouraging. Finally. For permission to use the images from Down with Love. Kate Hodgkin. Special thanks are owed to my PhD supervisors. Sleepless in Seattle.Acknowledgements Many thanks are owed to those who have helped me to finally bring this to fruition. Out of Sight. The Hours. Christine Gledhill and Peter Brooker. particularly Susanna Radstone. who were patient.
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Key texts by critics such as Molly Haskell (1979) Mary-Ann Doane (1987) Christine Gledhill (1987) and Jackie Byars (1991) analysed the thematic concerns and aesthetic codes of what came to be defined as ‘the woman’s film’: a broad critical category which included classical cycles such as the maternal melodrama or gothic woman’s film. Studying feminist film criticism in the late 1980s and 1990s helped me to contextualise this strange and distant form. blockbuster. The audience for women’s films may well have been associated with. the range of feminist work on these cycles during the 1980s and early 1990s highlighted the significance and relatively high profile of the female audience during the classical Hollywood era. sci-fi and action productions which dominated my teenage cinema-going years. Feminist approaches to these texts varied from a broadly positive view of the value placed on domesticity and women’s concerns within the films (Byars) to a more negative assessment of the ‘pathologisation’ of the feminine in cycles such as female gothic or the medical discourse film (Doane). as Haskell puts it ‘wet. Although fascinating. my encounter with films featuring central female protagonists and focusing on traditional female concerns was largely confined to afternoon reruns of old black and white movies or the occasional Technicolor 1950s melodrama.Introduction Like many women who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. and – in the case of the classical 1930s and 1940s productions – often slightly eerie. 1940s and 1950s for postclassical female viewers was precisely their status as part of a faded world of popular film culture in which feminine heroism and self-sacrifice were routinely glamourised and celebrated. wasted afternoons’ and a form of cinematic 1 . the form which I later understood as the classical woman’s film bore no relation to the relentless diet of post-classical. Part of the appeal of femaleorientated popular film cycles from the 1930s. Despite these different perspectives. horror.
misogynistic culture of derision for all things popular and female-identified. Critics such as Janet Winship (1987) Charlotte Brunsdon (1997) and Christine Geraghty (1991) have discussed the uneasy relationship between feminist scholarship and popular feminine cultural forms. horror or science-fiction which succeeded it gave much priority to either female protagonists or what are culturally perceived as ‘women’s’ concerns. it still counted for something. the woman’s film or popular women’s magazines. 1993). countercultural feminist film practice than reviving the conventional ‘weepie’ woman’s film. In marked contrast. Feminist interest in popular female forms thus treads a precarious line between wanting to reclaim or defend certain female-orientated forms against snobbery and sexism and recognising and acknowledging their complex role in mediating patriarchal ideals concerning sexuality. self-conscious new Hollywood cinema (influenced by French New Wave) of the 1960s and early 1970s nor the big-budget blockbuster era of action. Throughout the 1960s. feminist film criticism was also ambivalent in its attitude towards female-orientated popular film genres. with all its attendant gender norms. in its early. If the classical woman’s film or 1950s melodrama provided a crucial space within patriarchy for female-identified themes and issues. feminist film criticism was more interested in supporting the development of a radical. with feminist film theory beginning . these were also articulated within the socio-cultural constraints of the conservative gender ideology during these periods. However. by the late 1980s. As I argue in greater length in the first chapter. with rare exceptions. neither the experimental. 1970s and early 1980s there was little evidence to suggest that the form of the popular women’s film was ever likely to return to prominence. predominantly Marxist-psychoanalytic phase. the ubiquitous concept of ‘male gaze’ was under assault from many quarters.2 Postmodern Chick Flicks over-identification patronisingly associated with women (Haskell. increasingly catered for the tastes of adolescent males rather than adult females. 1979: 154) but at least. In addition to the industrial neglect of female-orientated film during this period. relegated to the made-for-television or straight-to-video market (Hillier. 1970s and 1980s popular films targeted specifically at the adult female audiences and dealing with female friendship. in industrial terms. There is a desire to avoid adding the feminist voice to a general highbrow. Not surprisingly. in the 1960s. such as soap opera. Hollywood post-classical production trends having. family relations and romance were. But this is set against an equally pressing need to explore the ways in which female-orientated popular forms do often work as much to reinforce polarised gender roles and negative attitudes to women as to question or challenge them. thus far. romance and family life.
horror or action film – which had long dominated popular post-classical Hollywood production (Clover. through the persistent stream of high-profile costume dramas and. Black Widow (Rafelson. considering the reasons for their unforeseen and unexpected return to popular prominence and their relation to broader socio-cultural trends and attitudes concerning gender roles and female identity from the late 1980s onwards. addressing the traditional feminine concerns of romance and relationships may have seemed in the 1970s and 1980s. Sex and the City. This book examines the formal and thematic properties of contemporary female-orientated film cycles. 1993). 1986) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (Cameron. as was the new action heroine of films such as Aliens (Cameron. The emphasis I place throughout the book on the ‘return’ or ‘revival’ of the chick flick is not only to highlight the relative absence of female-orientated . 1992. Furthermore. the continuing triumph of new romantic comedy. such as ‘chick lit’ (the work of writer such as Jane Green. nongendered viewing theory or viewing patterns was as much at odds with the notion of female-orientated cycles and the traditional woman’s film as the anti-popular. Freya North and Helen Fielding) and ‘chicks television’ (Ally McBeal. 1990) was the focus of much feminist debate and discussion. The widespread current media circulation of the term ‘chick flick’ is. 1986) or Blue Steel (Bigelow. anti-pleasure stance of much early cine-psychoanalysis. this trend has developed in tangent with a more general burgeoning of popular. law enforcers and investigators in films such as Jagged Edge (Marquand. The more rigid tenants of early feminist cine-psychoanalysis and feminist counter-cinema were increasingly being challenged (by both production trends and new critical approaches which responded to them) but the new direction of anti-essentialist. in particular. evidence of this phenomenon. in itself. the ‘chick flick’ has steadily clawed its way back into popular consciousness. From the first big cycle of women’s melodramas in the early 1980s. Tasker. The emerging 1980s trend for women in professional roles such as lawyers. 1991). There was also much critical interest in the slightly wider range of roles that were beginning to be inhabited by the female figure in popular cinema. 1985). The return of the chick flick But however anachronistic the concept of the popular women’s film. female-orientated and identified cycles have continued to flourish throughout the 1990s and into the twenty-first century. Desperate Housewives). female-orientated cultural forms.Introduction 3 to explore positions of cross-spectatorial identification and the pleasures to be gained by female viewers from the traditionally male genres – such as the science fiction.
Martin Scorcese and John Carpenter – attempted to pay homage . in some way. applying these to the new female-orientated film cycles. In the 1980s. the term is roughly equivalent to a range of other contemporary epoch defining terms. Hollywood ‘new wave’ directors – such as Arthur Penn. Throughout the book I will therefore use the critical understanding of postmodernist cinema to cover a range of recurring thematic interest and textual feature. I want to propose that it is the postmodernist aspects of the new female-orientated cycles which have enabled ‘chick flicks’ to return following the monumental shifts in cultural conceptions of female identity. expectations and aspirations of contemporary female audiences. Indeed. but equally important theoretical framework. denoting a new global era of technological innovation and socio-economic relations from the late 1960s onwards. such as post-industrial and post-Fordist. with the triumph of consumer capitalism and the expansion of the media industries and mass media culture. but also to situate these cycles within a second. Peter Bogdanovich. It is also associated. Jameson (1984) and Baudrillard (1985) and much debated since the mid-1980s. By defining the new cycles as postmodernist. providing an aesthetic framework which can incorporate the tension between historical conceptions of female identity and the values. The book’s central premise is that what distinguishes the new woman’s film from previous female-orientated forms is the integration of certain specific aesthetic. postmodernity is primarily a periodising concept. that of postmodernist criticism. The emergence of cinematic allusionism is tied to the influx of a new generation of innovative young film school-trained directors. now ‘postmodernist’. However. formal and thematic concerns that.4 Postmodern Chick Flicks production cycles in the immediate post-classical period. Within this broader conceptual framework. In its widest sense. In the more localised area of film studies. postmodernism is also strongly related to the concept of ‘post-classical’ Hollywood cinema. and employment and educational aspirations since the 1960s. Robert Altman. in other contexts. sexuality. have been identified as postmodernist. famously developed by critics such as Lyotard (1989). in a general sense. I have not identified and described the new female-orientated cycles as ‘postmodernist’ only in the sense that all cultural products which have emerged in popular Western culture since the 1960s are. early accounts of postmodernist cinema focused specifically on the self-conscious use of direct or indirect cinematic allusions introduced by the first generation of film school-educated directors. the book extends the range of cultural filmic cycles and forms that have been understood and addressed through the filter of postmodern film criticism.
Crime fiction and ‘nasty’ postmodernism Yet the inclusion of distancing and framing devices. The critical understanding of postmodernist cinema – identified by critics such as Noel Carroll in the late 1970s or Fredric Jameson’s well-known work on the nostalgia film – eventually developed into a more widespread view of a complex realignment of cinema culture. popular cinema. 1994)) and American Psycho (Harron. DVD and the proliferation of television channels). This particular mode of often arcane cinephilic allusionism was understood by an educated. in which the conceptual division between a low-budget modernist experimental art-house filmic practice standing in opposition to a popular realist. 2005). self-reflexive mixing of well-known generic formulas) and the frequent references to either past or contemporary film and television shows and popular culture which were becoming ever more prevalent in post-classical cinema. such as the increased availability of popular cultural forms (through video. Later accounts expanded the taxonomy of postmodernist features to include anti-realist distancing devices (such as characters directly addressing the camera. cinema-going elite. 1982. Jameson. metagenericity (the playful. 1984: 66–68). genre-based cinema was gradually being eroded (Carroll. the critical identification of postmodernist cinematic features has continued to cluster around texts associated with violence and the young male audience. 2000) are all examples of ‘nasty’ postmodernist cinema that provoked the wrath of the censors. 1986) and Natural Born Killers (Stone. . Many of these films have also been the subject of debates on censorship laws as they featured unusually explicit depictions of violence.Introduction 5 to a previous generation of classical Hollywood directorial stars and to bring touches of European art cinema to popular Hollywood production. a derogatory and often abusive treatment of women and the depiction of a male criminal subculture: cycles that Paul Gormley has recently defined as ‘the new brutality film’ (Gormley. abrupt shifts in character or location). Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino. and the widespread use of the language of film scholarship. Although these features are linked to specific historical and socio-cultural developments. Spanning two decades of Hollywood production. 1992) Blue Velvet (Lynch. genre blending or the self-conscious references to prior forms is by no means universal in contemporary. the re-circulation of old films. Postmodernist film criticism has persistently associated these features with film texts featuring high levels of violence. narrative and aesthetic elements identified as postmodernist are certainly more marked in particular cycles.
Tsalmandris. This view has been prevalent in responses to the highly self-conscious treatment of masculinity in films such as David Fincher’s Fight Club (Fincher. 1987: 47. Given the regressive articulation of gender/power relations within such texts (particularly the sadistic sexual treatment of Dorothy Valens – played by Isabella Rosselini – in Lynch’s postmodernist ‘classic’ Blue Velvet) it was hardly surprising that the initial critical discussions of the relationship between feminism and postmodernist cinema focused on the forms’ apparent desire to either exclude or offend the female audience (Creed. Some recent accounts go as far as to define postmodernist cinema specifically as a form that has arisen to articulate the problematic condition of masculinity in the postmodern world. Similarly Alexandra Juhasz suggests that the film indicates that ‘the postmodern condition is.6 Postmodern Chick Flicks The association of postmodernist features with male-orientated cinema spans the work of cultish experimental directors. it turns out. fundamentally a male condition involving nothing more than the loss of masculinity … Fight Club centres on a world-of-men fully peopled by unmales. Corrigan. Denzin. Shattuc. such as David Lynch. 1991: 61–79. 2001: 211). quasi-males. 1993). David Fincher and Michael Mann. Taubin. 1993: 287–96. often violent films and postmodernist aesthetic features has remained unchallenged. such as the Die Hard series. 1992. but the underlying assumption that an affinity exists between male-orientated. 1996. 1994). Layton. Tim Corrigan and Norman Denzin praising his work as an innovative alternative to the bland recycling and empty allusionism that typified blockbusters production of the late 1970s and early 1980s. aggressive . Quentin Tarantino. 1999). often from male critics who either ignored the films’ misogynistic aspects entirely or viewed these as somewhat negated by the films’ self-conscious tone and playful manner (Chumo. Martin Scorsece. Christopher Sharrett describes Fight Club as ‘the most compelling film on male hysteria and late capitalist culture’ (Sharrett. 1991: 66–81). with critics such as Fredric Jameson. 2001: 321). The notion that much violent. in the 1980s there was much critical interest in the work of David Lynch as postmodern auteur. Quentin Tarantino’s first cult hits – Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction – received a similar response. For example. such the Star Wars or the Indiana Jones movies (Jameson. uncertain males and males-in-waiting’ (Juhasz. 1992. male-centred postmodernist cinema unconsciously addresses the destabilisation of masculine identity in postmodern society seems entirely plausible given the hyperbolic. More recent accounts of postmodernist cinema (by both male and female critics) tend to pay closer attention to its articulation of gender. and mainstream action movies.
and feminine naivety associated with older. female-orientated genres are still haunted by the hopelessly uncool figure of the dim-witted. The traditional association of women’s films and affective intensity also goes some way towards explaining the reluctance of critics to perceive postmodernist strategies at work in the new women’s cycles. 2001. The standard features of postmodernist cinema – irony. 2001).Introduction 7 forms of masculine behaviour on display in these films. moments of emotional engagement tend to be brief and fleeting in male-orientated postmodernism. Allusionism. this is as much a response to the postindustrial decline in traditional male jobs and the perceived emasculation of men as new target for body-conscious consumer products than a reaction to feminist gains (Sharrett. narrative self-consciousness and allusion. For example. At the other end of the cinematic spectrum. Tarantino delights in jolting viewers away from moments of intimacy and emotional engagement with a sudden irruption of violence and brutality. cultish and masculine. As critics such as Sharrett and Juhasz suggest. nasty filmic postmodernism has skewered debates on postmodernist cinema binding the understanding of a range of postmodernist aesthetic strategies too closely to male-orientated genres. a dynamic which is also evident in the work of other postmodern auteurs. More significantly. postmodernist cinema has thus far been defined as anarchic. these are often used precisely to ameliorate the sentimentalism. such as David Lynch. Put bluntly. with directors such as Tarantino accruing ‘an undeniable aura of cool’ (Fraiman. Yet the overwhelming emphasis on a particular kind of swaggering. As Susan Fraiman argues in her perceptive analysis of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. as early as the late 1980s and early 1990s. this archaic view of the female viewer ignores the way in which the new female-orientated cycles have increasingly incorporated the self-consciousness and framing devices associated with postmodernist aesthetics. Nora Ephron’s romantic comedies such as When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle incorporated obvious allusions to previous forms – such as the sex-comedy and nervous romance in the former and a direct parody of the over-identifying female viewer of . post-feminism and new women’s films As I have suggested above. In addition to the ironic address of cultish postmodern films. impressionable female viewer. pre-feminist female-identified forms. Juhasz. ‘masculine’ pleasures of reference spotting than the overengagement which is closely bound to the cultural perception of female viewing pleasure. 2003: 2). distanced. are associated with the more cerebral.
This is not to suggest that self-consciousness or irony entirely obliterates the regressive emphasis on love and marriage in such films. Despite the inclusion of these elements. 2004). 1991: 119. Moore. The prior cinematic frame is particularly obvious in a cluster of highly self-conscious recent women’s films such as the camp remake of The Stepford Wives (Oz. 2000: 309). Not only is the latter an aesthetic and formal pastiche of previous sex-comedy forms (via costume. . But just as the preoccupation with excessive and brutal masculinity in ‘nasty’ postmodernism highlights the relationship between male fantasies of omnipotence and the perceived destabilisation of male power. star performance. 1998). there is still a tendency to read these as contributing to. 2002) or the almost painfully allusionist. critical responses to these films. Down with Love (Reed. the forms’ allegiance to traditional gender power/relations (Krutnik. the proto-feminist heroine is jokily recoded as the ‘down with love’ girl. played by Renee Zellwegger. 1993: 18). political force. 2003). the distance placed between old. anymore than most feminist critics would argue that the brutality.8 Postmodern Chick Flicks traditional film romance in the latter – along with interspliced film clips. Pillow Talk – repeatedly circulates directly around gender power issues. Tarantino or Fincher is rendered harmless by the black comedy and allusion which saturates these films. Based in the early 1960s and thus prior to the emergence of feminism as a coherent. re-inflecting their self-conscious imitation of past forms with current preoccupations. location and period voice-over) but the films thematic content – based strongly on Michael Gordon’s classic 1959 sex-comedy. violence and misogyny in the work of Lynch. humour and self-consciousness of the film were often critically overlooked in favour of its perceived preoccupation with the ‘desperate singleton’ (Whelehan. The older notion of romance and female false-consciousness was evident in response to the first Bridget Jones film production. clichéd and patronising. Even when the self-conscious elements and intentional use of allusionism is acknowledged. cinematically familiar notions of femininity and contemporary sexual and social mores inevitably emphasises shifts in socio-cultural perceptions of gender/power relations. still tended to view them derivative. In this sense. the film typifies the way that postmodernist forms oscillate between past and present. in which the Austen references. rather than self-conscious or postmodernist (Denzin. rather than pulling against. Renee Zellwegger – by this point strongly associated with her role as Bridget Jones. particular around the time of their release. the Sirkian homage Far from Heaven (Haynes. the archetypal singleton heroine of the romantic comedy revival – reworks the Doris Day figure of Pillow Talk in the depiction of protagonist Barbara Novak.
sexual freedom are harnessed to individualism and consumerism’ (Tasker and Negra. geographic. 2005: 105). The dual association of the Jones/Day figure is complicated further by the link to Kim Novak. particularly those aimed at women. emphasised in the scene in which male protagonist. In accordance with this conception of popular .Introduction 9 From Down with Love. post-feminist attitudes promote the view that ‘women’s economic. Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor) irritates the heroine by pretending to mistake her for the early 1960s Hollywood star. professional. The film’s pre-feminist setting selectively draws on the aspects of prior figures and themes that are the most compatible with what – in broad terms – has been identified with the contemporary discourse of ‘post-feminism’. 2003. and perhaps most particularly. Straddling a number of cultural forms.
The film’s repackaging of feminist politics as Novak’s upbeat. In this and many other respects. Novak is depicted as a skilful and confident consumer. self-respect and the desire for economic and career achievement is endorsed but placed within a framework of consumer power and individual achievement rather than collective struggle. The Doris Day impersonation thus draws on the entrepreneurial ambition. this pastelcoloured. in terms of the film’s post-feminist approach to gender roles. the film’s postmodernist pastiche of past forms is aligned with common currency of contemporary post-feminist attitudes. The film is typical of post-feminist forms in that it studiously avoids the ‘f’ word and adopts a tongue-in-cheek. its arch tone and relentless use of allusion. the figure of Barbara Novak embodies an exaggerated and self-consciously artificial femininity that is associated with fun. Significantly. both acknowledges and parodies the impact of the angry. irony and pastiche crushing the more conventional pleasures of the romantic fantasy. While Kim Novak is famously associated with her role as constructed object of perverse male fantasy in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Barbara Novak’s investment in feminine accoutrements is presented as self-determined and empowering. The gains achieved by second wave feminism – such as increased education and career opportunities for Western women – are integrated into the film’s logic of female aspiration and independence. 1971). The feminist value placed on female alliance. Furthermore. unlike Day in the sexcomedies but akin to Bridget Jones and other heroines of contemporary chick lit. freedom and independence rather than oppression or manipulation.10 Postmodern Chick Flicks post-feminism. But it also links these to the current Bridget Jones-associated phenomena of the contemporary women’s personal growth/self-help publishing market. unapologetic feminist tracts of 1960s and 1970s (such as the Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. playful postmodernist approach to attitudes that might smack of hard-line political activism. television and film. Down with Love is certainly one of the more directly postmodernist – and post-feminist – examples of the new female-orientated film cycles. Barbara Novak benefits from mutually supportive relationships with other women. feminine self-assurance and sartorial flamboyance of Day’s role in Pillow Talk without the pre-permissive sexual restrictions and inhibitions tied to this figure. playful treatment of gender/power struggles. But the use of . girlish femininity is twinned with adult sexual desire and a craving for economic independence and consumer power. 1963. best-selling guide to female self-advancement Down with Love. or Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. but their association with hard won historical and political struggle is erased from the film’s light.
irony. such as the romantic melodrama and costume drama. distancing devices and a preoccupation with the past are features which persistently reoccur in the more high profile. Lacanian approaches to the romance fantasy have long pointed to its compensatory function: it exists to provide the consoling illusion that true oneness with ‘the other’ is possible. particularly those associated with Woody Allen. ‘nervous’ romance. This is evident in early examples of the new romantic comedy cycle. For example. and it is not difficult to see why film romance can no longer be played ‘straight’. In the new romantic comedy the emotional intensity and affect associated with the classical woman’s film is therefore juxtaposed with a sceptical attitude towards romance and a critique of past cinematic gender/power relations. Add to this primal problem the lingering. 1992). the persistent framing of the romance fantasy in new female-orientated cycles allows the woman’s film to reappear in a context in which its traditional themes of self-abandonment in love and selfless devotion to another have been persistently battered by contemporary socio-cultural values. popular examples of the new female-orientated cycles. the romantic comedy is only one of the key revived female-orientated genres that have reappeared since the early 1990s. influential feminist critique of the romance fantasy as a form of false consciousness. a structure of disavowal that attempts to override the divided nature of subjectivity and the subject/ object split through romantic self-abandonment and rapprochement (Lapsley and Westlake. The chapters are (broadly) chronological and specifically genre and cycle based. the rising Western divorce rate and an ever-intensifying culture of consumer individualism. However.Introduction 11 cinematic allusion. examining the different ways in which post-feminist . Casablanca and the film is intercut with faux-documentary footage of older couples. As I have suggested. Gender and generic reformulations The romantic comedy’s inherent ‘battle of the sexes’ structure and light. comic approach to romance has made it particularly compatible with both a sceptical post-feminist attitude to courtship and postmodernist distancing and framing devices. The principal characters justify their actions and behaviour according to models provided by the Hollywood classic. The book also examines the self-conscious framing of the romance fantasy and critique of historical gender power relations in the revival of more traditionally ‘affect-driven’ women’s forms. When Harry Met Sally also draws on obvious references to both the 1960s sex-comedy and the 1970s post-permissive.
the new attention to the female audience and influence of the revived female-orientated .12 Postmodern Chick Flicks discourses and broader cultural attitudes are articulated within various postmodernist female-orientated forms. Sleeping with the Enemy (Reubens. Conversely. such as romance and family life – and a politicised. Crime fiction has been a key generic focus for the development of violent. the films emphasise the genre’s longstanding association with the female literary tradition and its critique of historical gender/power relations. 1990) – combines the classical woman’s films melodramatic preoccupation with death. Traditional feminine and melodramatic values are reworked to incorporate a critique of the sexual exploitation and a marked emphasis on economic independence rather than the feminine consumerism more widely associated with chick lit and chicks television. Concentrated in the early 1990s. The use of these elements is also linked to an ideological critique of the patriarchal construction of marriage and motherhood. the techniques of Brechtian anti-realism are blended with contemporary historiography. Indecent Proposal (Lynn. 1990). The three chapters that focus specifically on forms identified with the female audience are followed by an analysis of contemporary film noir. Thus the romantic melodrama cycle from the early 1990s – films such as Ghost (Zucker. the cycle largely predates the more dominant strand of ironic. The (relative) commercial success of such films is also indicative of the continuing dissolution of boundaries between popular women’s cinema – defined in industrial and popular critical terms through its association with conventional women’s concerns. recoded and updated as the discourse of ‘yuppie’ greed. metafiction and postmodernist framing and distancing devices. the new melodrama draws on the older notion of ‘woman as cultural saviour’ opposing the cynical 1980s culture of consumer excess. allusionist romantic comedy and its emphasis on the female economic aspiration and consumer power. The revived costume/period drama has been more obviously influenced by feminist ‘art-house’ cinema and its critique of historical gender roles. 1993) and Pretty Woman (Marshall. 1991). enhanced by – rather than in competition with – the use of costume and period settings. Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992) Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) and the Stephen Daldry’s The Hours (2002). experimental feminist cinema. However. yet they also draw on the popular filmic pleasures associated with the period form. All three are strongly associated with highbrow literature and a feminist literary critical tradition. In the key films examined in the chapter. male-orientated postmodern cinema. Rather than being rare examples of a intelligent ‘counter’ costume form. persecution and prostitution with a wider social critique of male power.
the eye-poppingly violent. alighting on the figure of housewife and mother. Like the reworked noir-hybrids. such as Heartbreakers (Mirkin. Far from Heaven. In a more general sense. 1997). For example. or its more recent sequel. The most persistent feature of the new women’s cycles is their self-conscious. the recent cycle of female-orientated films that overtly or covertly return to the decade – The Stepford Wives. 1999) and Jackie Brown (Tarantino. Katherine Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) integrates a female-led melodramatic critique of corporate greed and police corruption with tech-noir trappings. while neo-noirs exhibiting the classical ‘fatal woman’ plotline (such as Basic Instinct. The concluding section of the book considers the recent cluster of women’s films that return to one of the central preoccupations of postmodernist cinema of the 1980s – the concept of cinematic ‘fiftiesness’. the remake of The Thomas Crowe Affair (McTiernan. the form has been rejuvenated by new noir-lite combinations of crime and romance or comedy. but also blends this with a critique of tough-guy masculinity. This rejection of past roles – articulated in this cycle through the trope of ‘fiftiesness’ – exhibits a complex mix of hostility and sympathy in its treatment of the culturally and historically overloaded figure of the domestic goddess. 1985) articulated fiftiesness through the oedipal dramas of the adolescent male. loud retro soul/jazz soundtrack and a thematic interest in male gang culture. 2 (2004) anchor postmodernist gallows humour and brutality to one of the staple themes of the classical woman’s film: maternal protectiveness and the mother/ daughter bond. 2006) have become increasingly farcical. Even Tarantino’s latest productions. knowing tone and obsessive interest in past . 1998) suggests a degree of female disenchantment with the contemporary revival of the ideology of female domesticity. Mona Lisa Smile (Newell. Intolerable Cruelty (Coen. it highlights the ideological ambivalence of the revived female cycles. Similarly. 1986) Blue Velvet. allusionist. Jameson’s early 1990s analysis of cinematic fiftiesness points to the decade’s mythological significance as a perceived moment of prepermissive cultural cohesion. Ross. Steven Soderburgh’s noirish Out of Sight (1998) uses many of the hallmarks of ‘nasty’ postmodernism – fast editing. 2001). Kill Bill Vol. a screwball romantic plotline and a leading female law enforcer. Her demonisation or destruction (also apparent in the less female-orientated but equally self-conscious. In more general terms. or the more mainstream.Introduction 13 genres becomes increasingly evident in neo-noir and crime fiction from the mid-1990s. 2003) – shift the focus from youthful male to mature female protagonist. 1 (2003) and Kill Bill Vol. Back to the Future (Zemickis. Pleasantville. 2003). Films such as Something Wild (Demme.
genres and the prior gender roles carried within them. although the book certainly aims to challenge the overwhelming critical emphasis on violent. male-orientated postmodern cinema – and the persistent idea that female viewers can barely recognise even the crudest forms of irony and allusionism – it is less a defence or critique of the new female cycles than an attempt to understand and account for their use of postmodernist elements which contextualises these in relation to broader cultural perceptions of gender roles.14 Postmodern Chick Flicks forms. For example. In the more obviously feminist-inspired new female cycles – such as the costume drama – this is combined with a level of affective intensity and a strong and sympathetic engagement with prior forms of female oppression. the ironic distancing of the romance fantasy and rejection of the masochistic glorification of feminine self-sacrifice is more obviously in line with the discourse of post-feminist individualism. in Down with Love and The Stepford Wives. . past and present. In other forms. such as recent romantic comedy or 1950s revival cycle. For these reasons. irony and allusion is used to trivialise – even sneer at – past forms of gender oppression.
Thinking through the underlying reasons for these differences. It will explore why there has not. Looking closely at these distinctions is particularly useful in understanding the problematic relationship between feminist theory. been much critical interest in the possibility of a productive interaction between feminism and postmodernist cinema. film. Ironically.1 Postmodernism. about the only thing that does seem clear is that. while there are obviously many points of overlap between approaches to postmodernist architecture. is a useful place to begin narrowing what can seem like a potentially limitless field and disentangling the more general concept of the postmodern from its cinemaspecific or even film text-specific usage. New Hollywood and Women’s Films One of the key problems for anyone attempting to look closely at a particular field of postmodern cultural production is the overwhelming scope of theoretical and popular media definitions of what constitutes postmodern culture. the latter understood as a particularly self-conscious 15 . and their significance in structuring and producing certain kinds of political and cultural debates on postmodernism and cinema. as both a critical and periodising concept. This chapter will therefore begin by looking at the particular critical and industrial context in which definitions of postmodernist cinema developed. women’s cinema and postmodernist aesthetic strategies. there are also important differences that reveal much about what postmodernism means in relation to specific cultural systems. literature. music or photography. as yet. To put it another way. The popular circulation of the term ‘postmodern’ has expanded to the point where it can encompass everything in the contemporary cultural sphere and thus tell us very little about any specific cultural or artistic form. the term ‘postmodernist culture’ has been applied in quite different ways to various artistic and cultural products.
women’s cinema and postmodernist cinema in the 1990s. Prior to this point the cultural and artistic forms that had acquired the term were essentially new forms of modernist avant-gardism developed along what he describes as the ‘Duchamp-Cage-Warhol axis’ (Huyssen. by the work of directors such as David Lynch. Nevertheless. Quentin Tarantino. 1989: 16–28). in different ways. It falls roughly into two halves. Michael Mann. as Andreas Huyssen points out in his discussion of the term’s etymology. Although these later movements were clearly rebellions against the established forms of canonical ‘high’ modernism – perceived as having . The first traces the roots of popular Hollywood postmodernist cinema through the development of ‘new Hollywood’ in the 1960s and the emergence of a cohort of film-school-educated directors and an increasingly cine-literate audience during the last three decades.16 Postmodern Chick Flicks and ‘knowing’ cinematic practice (dating from the 1960s) which foregrounds its inclusion of prior cinematic codes and conventions and anti-realist devices. Popular postmodernist cinema and postmodern culture One of the most striking aspects of early debates on postmodernist aesthetic strategies and cinema is how rapidly the concept of postmodernism came to be associated with mainstream Hollywood rather than ‘art-house’ or avant-garde counter-cinema which flourished during the 1970s. postmodernist cinema has most famously been associated with a certain kind of cultish male-orientated cinema of the late 1980s and1990s exemplified. As I argued in the introduction. Martin Scorsese and David Fincher. It argues that while a popular postmodernist cinematic practice initially emerged and was critically identified in genres associated with the male audience. the past decade has witnessed the development of a specifically feminised postmodernist practice in popular women’s genres. postmodernism was not widely associated with the reshaping of divisions between ‘mass’ and ‘popular’ culture until at least the late 1970s/early 1980s. suggesting the perceived collapse of the high/low cultural divide – and the rejection of modernist elitism – rather than the triumph of a newer. 1986: 188). This might not seem all that surprising given that the ‘post’ in postmodern is now widely understood as signifying what Jim Collins describes as a ‘decentred’ culture. This chapter will consider the industrial. better or more advanced kind of modernist practice (Collins. theoretical and wider socio-historical context that led to this particular critical conception of the form. The second half looks at the relationship between shifting critical conceptions of feminist film theory.
The essays’ wider concept of postmodernist cultural practices – applied to the design of shopping malls. strongly identified with Hollywood and the popular sphere. (Huyssen. Jameson’s periodising analysis cut across the high/low divide and brought a disparate group of cultural practices and forms under the theoretical macrostructure of Ernst Mandel’s neoMarxist analysis of modern and late modern economic foundations (Mandel. Huyssen states: My main point about contemporary postmodernism is that it operates in a field of tension between tradition and innovation. mass culture and high art in which the second terms are no longer automatically privileged over the first. almost from its inception. For Huyssen. the English translation of The Ecstacy of Communication in . This developed alongside the growing influence of postmodern philosophy and social and cultural theory during this period.Postmodernism. Jameson’s analysis shifted critical interest in postmodernist cultural forms away from the avant-garde practices of what Huyssen retrospectively defines as late modernist movements towards a more populist understanding of the term. 1986: 267) Critical accounts of postmodernist cinema are particularly interesting in this respect as the emergence of a postmodernist cinema aesthetic was. the primary distinction between these ‘late modern’ movements and the postmodernist practice of the 1980s and beyond is in its relation to mass culture. opening up the range of contemporary cultural products/practices and artistic forms which could be understood through this analytical framework. 1978). 1979) and the work of Jean Baudrillard. the visual arts and popular cinema – informed the development of a more inclusive understanding of the postmodern cultural scene in the 1980s. Indeed. conservation and renewal. Jameson’s widely reproduced ‘Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’ (1984) (which takes Hollywood film as one of its prime examples of the new postmodernist aesthetic) and ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’ (1985) were critical interventions which did much to alter the status of postmodernism from that of a still largely obscure artistic practice to a cultural dominant. the wider circulation of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (through English translation. In addition to Jameson’s work on the relationship between postmodernist cultural forms and global late capitalism. as for many other commentators. New Hollywood and Women’s Films 17 exhausted their critical edge – they were equally resistant to and critical of mass culture. poetry. particularly.
18 Postmodern Chick Flicks Hal Foster’s Postmodern Culture (1985). This broader understanding of the term denoted the complex interaction between modes of thought and being. Postmodernist cultural forms not only symbolise. transcode or. Harvey.or heavy industry-orientated ‘base and superstructure’ models of the relation between culture and the economic sphere. with cultural divisions across the highbrow/lowbrow schism collapsing in favour of what critic John Seabrook’s analysis of postmodern culture critiques as the complete triumph of ‘nobrow’ culture (Seabrook. more problematically. From its more concrete historical basis in post-war technological advances. 1984. 2000). entertainment and cultural industries in the late twentieth century has also blown apart older manufacture. society and the triumph of media-generated images. . while this later. and no one can occupy the position of Olympian detachment from mass entertainment adopted by high modernism (Jameson. to the more abstract Baudrillardian notion of the disappearance of ‘real’ history. also broadened the concept from a small-scale rebellion against canonical modernism to a full-blown sociocultural and economic ‘condition’. broader understanding of the postmodern reduced the cultural sphere to just one aspect of the seismic transformations that constitute the postmodern global order. The expanding power and influence of the media and cultural industries has also developed hand in hand with the perceived death of high culture and the ‘democratisation’ of cultural and artistic forms. Baudrillard. the postmodern cultural landscape is one in which all cultural forms are subject to the relentless demands of commodity production. attempt to make sense of the postmodern condition (in the manner that modernism attempted to grasp and make sense of the experience of early twentieth-century modernity). 1990: 63–97. including shifts in the dissemination and production of knowledge and the reorganisation of economic production (sometimes also referred to as post-Fordism or post-industrialism). 1984: 85–87). 1991: 66–72). but the phenomenal growth and increasing power of the leisure. Paradoxically. As Jameson suggested in the early 1980s. demanding a new analysis of the importance of cultural production. 1989: 59–65). the concept of the postmodern expanded to embrace all aspects of contemporary Western cultural existence. More recent critics also suggest that this process accelerated throughout the 1990s. social organisation and economic production along with cultural and artistic practices that fed into the nebulous concept of ‘the postmodern condition’. it was also recognised as an increasingly important and powerful sphere of activity (Jameson. consumer lifestyles and the ‘aestheticization’ of everyday life (Featherstone.
Postmodernism, New Hollywood and Women’s Films 19
However, if the range of cultural and artistic practices described and understood through the rubric of postmodern theory has undoubtedly expanded from the early 1980s onwards, it is still true to say that film analysis was one of the first fields of cultural criticism in which this broader, mass entertainment-orientated definition generated considerable critical interest and excitement. There is little question that, even in the 1980s, there were still distinct differences between what was defined as a postmodernist practice in literature, the visual arts and cinema. For example, while Huyssen conceptualises the difference between late modernism and postmodernism via a comparison of the work of Samuel Beckett and the relatively populist and accessible postmodernist writers such as Italo Calvino or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jameson’s pool of references was comprehensive and wide-ranging enough to address both avant-garde artists – such as John Cage – and Steven Spielberg and George Lucas movies. Similarly, in the well-known 1980s Hal Foster anthology Postmodern Culture, Jameson’s article sits alongside postmodern critiques of visual artists, photographers and musicians such as Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman and John Cage (Foster, 1985: ix). Although the latter are engaging with popular images and ideas in a more ambivalent manner than previous generations of avant-garde artists, there is still a strong sense of critical distance informing their work. They operate both within and outside of this sphere and thus maintain some detachment from it. The embrace of the popular is generally taken as one of the hallmarks of postmodern cultural forms – distinguishing them from the supposed elitism of ‘high’ modernism – as far as literature is concerned, it would be more accurate to argue that while many postmodernist writers such as Salman Rushdie, Italo Calvino or Umberto Eco knowingly incorporated aspects of popular culture within their work, they were nonetheless producing texts which are widely regarded as quality literature. Such texts are, for the main part, distributed and marketed in quite different ways from the still buoyant ‘pulp’ genre sector of the market. In contrast, from the earliest discussions of postmodernist cinema by Jameson, Nöel Carroll, Norman Denzin or Jim Collins (Collins, 1989: 90–96) to the more recent and generalised deployment of the term within film criticism, critiques of postmodernist cinematic production – whether critical or celebratory – have generally been more closely aligned with Hollywood than with the avant-garde or ‘art-house’ sector of the market. The question of how and why a more ‘popular’ postmodernist practice emerged and was identified by film theorists and cinema critics is extremely pertinent for feminist criticism. As feminist film theory and cinematic
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practice were strongly aligned with avant-gardist counter-cinema at the point at which popular postmodernist cinema was beginning to draw critical recognition – roughly from the late 1970s onwards – this proved a strong obstacle to critical interest in the possibility of a more populist feminist practice which implemented postmodernist aesthetic strategies. In the following section I want therefore to set out some causal factors for the ‘popular’ development of cinematic postmodernism during this period and highlight the particular form this took before addressing its relation to feminist criticism and women’s cinema in more detail.
Cinematic allusionism, genre and new Hollywood
Jameson was one of the first critics to find points of commonality between the aesthetic strategies associated with the ‘late’ modernism discussed by Huyssen and the emergence of an aesthetic of allusionism and generic self-consciousness in the Hollywood productions of the 1980s. In ‘Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’ he links features such as the use of pastiche and a general sense of flat stylishness over depth and meaning with the late capitalist drive towards the commodification of cultural forms and their tendency to absorb and cannibalise past styles from either end of the perceived ‘high/low’ cultural spectrum (Jameson, 1984: 64–66). However, a historical overview of the emergence of a popular postmodernist cinema aesthetic also suggests that this tendency towards populist eclecticism, stylistic homage and the cross-over between generic forms was actually more fully developed within film than other comparable fields of cultural production from the late 1970s onwards. There were quite specific industrial and cultural conditions which favoured the emergence of what Carroll describes as a popular rather than avant-garde or radical ‘cinema of allusion’ (Carroll, 1982: 52) which allowed this style to become a significant aspect of what defined ‘new’ Hollywood over old. The uneven development of this process – which I will expand upon below – highlights one of the problems with broad-based postmodern cultural critiques. Approaches that move swiftly from architecture, photography, literature and other cultural forms have a tendency to glide over the particularities of specific cultural systems in favour of the bigger metacritical picture and are thus somewhat skewed towards finding the same taxonomy of postmodernist features in different forms rather than exploring critical misfits or points of dissent. In his interesting re-evaluation of Jameson’s work on postmodernist cultural forms, Peter Walsh suggests that this is a key problem with his approach to cinema (Walsh, 1996).
Postmodernism, New Hollywood and Women’s Films 21
Jameson nominally grants semi-autonomy to specific areas of production, but his underlying macrostructure constrains his interpretation of what is specific to the culture of post-classical Hollywood. This is not only the case in the earlier, shorter essays on postmodern culture – which sweep through different forms at breakneck speed – but also informs his more sustained analysis of postmodernist cinema, The Geopolitical Aesthetic (Jameson, 1995). In the latter text, a rather eclectic range of films from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s are read solely in terms of their function as allegories of the ghostly traces of the late-capitalist global system. But Mandel’s grand scale historical materialist periodisation of three stages of capitalism does not leave much space for the analysis of the smaller trends, cycles and subcycles of post-1960s cinematic production or the interrelated questions around identity politics – such as gender – that have been so significant within film scholarship over the last two decades. Similarly, although they are less reliant on one underlying metacritical logic, Norman Denzin and Jim Collins tend to cross-reference between postmodernist cultural and artistic forms – via postmodern philosophy – rather than focus on the localised industrial/historical and political context which shapes certain kinds of generic and narrative cinematic forms. There is an important place for this kind of wide-ranging cross-cultural (meta) critique. Indeed, if one of the defining aspects of postmodern global economic and cultural systems is the interlacing webs of multinational corporations and their control of media, information and entertainment empires, we can scarcely make sense of postmodernist cultural forms without it. Yet surprisingly little work has been undertaken on the equally significant connections between the development of postmodernist cinema and the industrial infrastructure or more localised cultural context from which it emerged. For example, while initial critical definitions of postmodernist cinema located it largely within popular Hollywood production (Carroll, 1982; Jameson, 1984) – as opposed to artcinema, women’s cinema, European or non-Western cinematic forms – there has been little critical interest in the relationship between the emergence of a popular postmodernist cinema and the simultaneous industrial development of post-classical or new Hollywood. Aside from the predominance of the broader critical approach linking the development of a postmodernist cinematic mode to the ‘postmodern condition’, this also reflects a degree of critical unease regarding the historical specificity of postmodernist cultural practices. As many of those opposed to the notion of postmodernism as a new and distinct aesthetic practice have argued, the aesthetic features discussed by Jameson – such as the use of irony, parody and other forms of fictional
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self-consciousness – are not confined to the late twentieth century, and, as such, are not wholly tied to particular industrial or cultural circumstances. In addition to this, since classical Hollywood and modernism are generally situated as polar opposites, with Hollywood occupying the position of modernism’s other (Huyssen, 1986: 47–51), a ‘post-modernist’ Hollywood, in the sense of going beyond or rejecting aspects of modernism, is a problematic concept.1 Furthermore, using the more ‘popular culture’-orientated understanding of the term, if certain themes, plots and stylistic features defined as postmodernist have become increasingly prevalent, perhaps even characteristic of much Hollywood production from the late 1970s onwards, there is still enough conventional genre production among the industry’s vast output to problematise its status as the dominant cinematic mode of address. For these reasons it would be a mistake to conflate postmodernist cinema with post-classical Hollywood. Nevertheless, there are also important points of overlap between the industrial structure of new Hollywood and the wider socio-economic transition to post-Fordist production methods which are clearly linked to the emergence of a certain kind of generically self-conscious, ‘allusionist’ cinema. Tracing the overlap between shifting production methods, corporate structures and postmodernist cinema gives the development of this late twentieth-century aesthetic and stylistic cinematic mode a more concrete historical and cultural basis. Many accounts of postmodernist cinema note the high degree of familiarity with classical film among contemporary audiences, or the way in which much postmodernist cinema draws attention to the gulf between contemporary production and the golden Hollywood features which return in quotation marks (Jameson, 1984: 66; Collins, 1993: 254; Sharrett, 2001: 328–30). However, they rarely consider the historical, cultural and economic factors that produced both a popular, sophisticated, self-conscious textual style and a mass audience who were cine-literate enough (through the postFordist redistribution of old Hollywood) to embrace it.
New Hollywood and the recirculation of classical film
The concept of new or post-classical Hollywood is nearly as contentious as that of the postmodern itself. But there are certain concrete historical events that give it a firmer historical basis and have come to signify the watershed between old and new Hollywood. Many cine-historians situate the 1948 Paramount decrees (in which anti-monopoly legislation severed the link between production and exhibition centres) as a formative moment for new Hollywood (Schatz, 1993: 11; Maltby, 1998: 23, Balio, 1990: 3).
multi-product. 1988). there is little doubt that old Hollywood was a more localised. globalised. 2000: 233–42). video in the 1970s. Despite its basis in entertainment rather than manufacture. such as television in the 1950s. the rise. dividing the old autocratic. vertically structured ‘Fordist’ studio system – of restrictive contracts. fall and eventual recovery of the American film industry provides an interesting example of the transition from what David Harvey describes as Fordist ‘economies of scale’ to the postmodern. solid and autonomous industry than its fluid. in-house training programmes and despotic studio bosses – from the horizontally structured. globalised postmodern condition and the emergence of what is generally understood as a postmodernist aesthetic mode within a branch of the cultural industry which has undergone this sort of transformation. contemporary counterpart. Staiger and Thompson – had allowed in their taxonomy of Hollywood genres and the studio system (Bordwell. New Hollywood and Women’s Films 23 The Paramount legislation is also regarded as a symbolic act. multi-product global communication and entertainment networks have ensured that major studios now resemble their predecessors in name only. the growth of other entertainment empires. cable and satellite home entertainment systems in the 1980s/ 1990s. Although Hollywood still promotes itself as an LA-based dream factory – continuing to trade on the glamour associated with tinsel town and the old studio system – the postFordist shift into sub-contraction and ‘synergy’ and the creation of diverse. 1998. post-Fordist ‘economies of scope’ (Harvey. the relationship between post-Fordist economic restructuring and post-classical or ‘new’ Hollywood also bridges the gap between the broader understanding of the socio-economic. and the post-war expansion of the youth market. Cine-historians such as Steve Neale and Rick Altman have convincingly argued against the notion of classical Hollywood as a Fordist mass-genre production line (Altman. Neale. In this respect. In contrast. Staiger and Thompson. multi-product entertainment conglomerates more typical of the contemporary film industry. sub-contraction to smaller producers and investment in film-related merchandising is what kept the major studios afloat during the leaner years and allowed them to flourish in the 1980s and 1990s. consolidation with other entertainment media. The transition from classical to post-Fordist new Hollywood was also strongly influenced by wider economic factors and demographic and social shifts: in particular.Postmodernism. . 1989: 142–88) that have dominated the global market in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. But even if the films were more varied and individual and the genre system less determining than the ‘Fordist’ analogy implies. suggesting that studio production was more flexible than previous critics – such as Bordwell.
Corrigan. merchandising and commodity tie-in products. and the promotional campaigns for the recent blockbusters. The development of the high-concept. 1990. 1998. critics such as Schatz and Cook (Schatz. 1993: 19. When. inner city cinemas. a continuing myth concerning post-classical Hollywood is that the arrival of television. let alone struggle to nasty. television companies attempted to lower the cost of buying up feature films by producing ‘cinematic’ television alternatives – such as the mini-series or TV movies – studios retaliated by pouring money into a yearly handful of ‘high-concept’ or blockbuster productions that are often viewed as the defining mode of new Hollywood production. cable and satellite entertainment is that these newer media also created lucrative exhibition opportunities. 1998: 38) note the continuing industrial dominance of the high-concept blockbuster. Cook. 1993: 12–17. Cook. 1990: 145–63). Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Newell. White. As early as the 1950s. Both Thomas Schatz and David Cook cite Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1974) as the first true high-concept film (Schatz. 1998: 47–49). in the 1960s. 1993: 17–25. classical cinema was always subject to competition from other media. making them reluctant to leave the sofa. While television did manage to corner certain areas of cinema production – such as newsreels and B-movies – bigger budget feature films were soon being sold for television exhibition. 1998: 22). film studios were investing in ‘telefilm’ companies and exploring the possibilities of television as a major new outlet for film exhibition and distribution. As Richard Maltby points out in his discussion of the development of ‘consolidated entertainment’ empires. . special effects-driven blockbuster is also associated with the changing demographics of the American audience. 2005) suggest that this phase of production has not yet run its course. such as radio (Maltby. Similarly. The term ‘high-concept’ refers to lavish special effects-driven texts that are preceded by a costly publicity offensive.24 Postmodern Chick Flicks To take some of these factors in turn. 1998: 28). Historical accounts from the 1990s onwards suggest that the relationship of mainstream film to television was both more complicated and generally more fruitful than this (Schatz. 2005) and King Kong (Peter Jackson. decaying. Post-war affluence and the expansion of the youth market contributed to what Richard Maltby and Tim Corrigan describe as the ‘juvenilisation’ or ‘teenaging’ of American cinema via the predominance of action and adventure blockbusters (Maltby. video and other home-based forms of entertainment poached cinema audiences. The difference with television and later video. Lafferty. allowing for the resurrection and resale of old films and wider circulation of new films to previously inaccessible home-based sectors of the audience.
were easily recognisable to contemporary audiences. themes and genres of past eras of production fresh in the public’s mind. texts which. it often relied on and paid homage to old adventure and fantasy texts in a self-conscious manner. encouraging studios to open the archives and release old films. From the mid-1960s onwards. not just those hailing from the golden era of studio production. Following the invention of the non-TV-friendly widescreen in the 1950s. old Hollywood movies became a routine part of television output. 1980s and 1990s. such developments strongly influenced the emergence of a postmodernist cinematic aesthetic. New Hollywood and Women’s Films 25 But if shifting demographics and the growth of television failed to undermine the popularity of the cinema feature film. Predictably. feature films were produced with the possibility of ‘panning and scanning’ (clipping and reshaping) for small screen exhibition already worked into their aesthetic design. . as Jameson argued. Even major terrestrial channels. such as Channel Four in the UK. it did create product differentiation and shape the kinds of texts that have been associated with Hollywood production in the 1970s. Film channels also regularly run theme-based clusters of old movies. TV channels specialising in old films – such as Turner Classic Movies (TCM) – repackage and redefine any old movie. dramatically raising the price of classical texts. Aside from generating yet more revenue. due to the increased availability of old Hollywood. Moreover. frequently run four or five hourly programmes listing the greatest ‘all time’ movies or stars. this also kept the forms. The expansion of new exhibition and distribution networks strongly influenced this process. The recirculation of classical Hollywood is thus strongly bound up with the assumption that old equals ‘quality’ and the growing mythological status of the old ‘Fordist’ Hollywood which returns in many contemporary postmodernist texts.Postmodernism. While the high-concept blockbuster showcased state-of-the-art special effects. Video stimulated production and guaranteed extra exhibition and sales opportunities. Hollywood’s role in promoting racial and sexual equality is emphasised in these special themes. often imbuing them with a new historical and cultural significance. with over half of total film revenue now produced through home rentals and further opportunities for the recirculation of classical texts. The emergence of home video was more of a straightforward industry gain. Clearly. as classics. linking the development of certain forms and genres or the popularity of certain stars with broader issues of national and cultural identity such as the civil rights movement or feminism.
abandoning cine-historicism in favour of myth. Perhaps more significantly. Altman. Postmodernist generic play therefore reaffirms the significance of genre distinctions while also recoding past genres as defunct objects of nostalgic fascination. but. when cycles settle into genres. Altman proposes a generic map based on a ‘nomad-poacher’ metaphor in which shifting (nomadic) codes and conventions may. When their wandering in the wilderness . commanding an entire field of disparate narrative and stylistic elements. However. . their fixity makes them perfect targets for raids by new cycles. archetype and universal structures. Neale. while post-classical Hollywood is defined through its production of ‘metageneric’ blockbusters and the self-conscious postmodernist blending of prior cinematic codes. a recycling process whereby adjectival attributes – such as ‘musical’ or ‘western’ – come to attain the status of a free-standing genre. genre tends to be associated with the ‘Fordist’ production methods of classical Hollywood. critics required solid boundaries in order to carve out and protect their own professional territory. Altman traces generic ‘evolution’ through the constant sliding of generic terms from adjective to noun. 1998: 23–39. Altman accuses much genre criticism of effacing its own role in shaping these formal boundaries. come to be widely recognised as the constitutional elements of a full-fledged genre. such as the western or gangster film. arguing that while classical production was not tied to or structured by genre boundaries. . 1998: 24–28. attempts to classify postmodernist cinema in terms of its unique metagenericity or preference for pastiche and to posit a clean break between classical/post-classical forms tend to overplay the rigidity of classical genre boundaries. these features do not remain fixed in generic boundaries for long: . New genre theory (Maltby. the widespread media circulation and availability of classical Hollywood and the expansion of a cineaste’s awareness of genre codes has also reinforced the cultural significance of genre distinctions as a means of understanding and categorising filmic forms. given favourable critical and industrial circumstances. which falter in the face of difficulties surrounding even the most apparently stable of old Hollywood genres. paradoxically. Attaching more significance to broader disputes than stable generic features. 2000: 237–35) emphasises the post-classical critical construction of genre boundaries over industrial genre production. Conversely.26 Postmodern Chick Flicks Postmodern cinema and genre In broad terms. Postmodernist genre-blending works to unravel genre boundaries.
less cine-literate members of the audience are oblivious. This is directly proportional to the increased availability of both classic and contemporary filmic forms and the circulation of a critical vocabulary which – given its origins in the relatively recent discipline of film scholarship – simply did not exist for ‘classical’ cinema audiences. audience perception and critical analysis? The answer to this crucial question lies largely in the self-conscious and ironic manner in which such codes and conventions are recycled and the intense and uniquely cine-literate. If there is nothing unique in this process of genre recycling and repackaging. however. what is it that separates postmodernist genre poaching and generic recycling from the genre repackaging which has – according to critics such as Altman – long been a part of the everyday to and fro between industrial production. a critical interest in postmodernist cinema should provide the basis for a renewed attentiveness to the specificity of prior codes. 1998: 38) New genre criticism thus raises important questions for critics of postmodernist cinema. nomads spawn civilisation only to be robbed and plundered by yet another wandering tribe. or overlooking the fluidity.Postmodernism. It would be hard. media-savvy culture in which these films circulate. for anyone to miss the direct intersplicing of classical Hollywood in certain postmodernist films. cycles and how these are being understood and reclassified. Similarly. But the self-conscious postmodernist recycling of old Hollywood works in a rather different way from the routine recycling and repackaging that took place in the classical period. it is no longer unusual for contemporary film characters to sit around watching and discussing old movies or basing their patterns of behaviour and aspirations on them. a seasoned film buff might spot an arcane auteurist or generic cinematic reference to which other. (Altman. New Hollywood and Women’s Films 27 is done. conventions. Although levels of cine-literacy obviously vary. Far from simplifying the complexity. of classical Hollywood genres. . Altman’s emphasis on the significance of cinema scholarship in establishing genre boundaries (which are then available for ironic reinvention) is therefore compatible with an understanding of the emergence of postmodernist cinema when this is understood in the context of the expansion of this critical vocabulary and a high level of genre awareness among contemporary audiences. The emergence of popular postmodernist cinema relies on the assumption of a degree of cine-literacy among contemporary audiences.
and the broader left-leaning cine-historical accounts such as those offered by John Belton (1996). I want to look more closely at the wider ideological. classical Hollywood products feeds into the production of self-consciously parodic or allusionist texts. the idea that Hollywood film production was thrown into crisis in the immediate post-war period by competition from home entertainment is strongly disputed by more recent cine-historical accounts of the industry during this period. those focusing on its artistic or creative development during the same period take a more critical view. historical and social basis for the development of classical cinematic allusion and its relationship to the new commercial and critical status awarded to classical Hollywood production. The new influx of creative talent and the wider political and cultural climate surrounding new Hollywood were equally important influences on its consolidation and the emergence of postmodernist cinema. To begin with. postmodernist cinema and feminism or women’s cinema. As I have already suggested. The American film industry . it is worth stressing that while cine-historical accounts of new Hollywood’s ability to expand and flourish under new conditions cannot fail to highlight its commercial success. for example) was related to a production strategy in which more money was lavished on fewer films. high-concept productions were generically coded with the broadest cross-generic appeal. To recoup the original outlay. This analysis will draw on Carroll’s definition of cinematic allusionism (which predated the association of cinematic self-consciousness or classical allusion with postmodernist cultural forms) (Carroll. and new reverence for. 1982). It also seems logical to assume that the genre-blending which is associated with both postmodernist cinema and the ‘high-concept’ blockbuster (the self-conscious mix of historical and contemporary action/adventure in Spielberg’s 1982 Raiders of the Lost Ark. But there are other factors concerning the general cultural reappraisal of American cinema.28 Postmodern Chick Flicks The (first) new Hollywood renaissance The emergence of a popular postmodernist cinema aesthetic thus crosses and intersects with that of new Hollywood at several points. To give a fuller account of the relationship between new Hollywood and postmodernist cinema. It is clear how the availability of. Tim Corrigan (1998). While these critics also tend to neglect the relationship between allusionism. David Cook (1998) and Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner (1990). their emphasis on social and cultural movements takes us further towards these issues and suggests some possible reasons why women’s cinema did not ‘go mainstream’ in the manner of other experimental filmic forms during this period.
1998: 22. Brian De Palma. While the new affluence of the youth market and the demographic shift to the suburbs were likely causal factors. location and composition of post-war cinema-goers than competition from other media. In an indirect way. According to these critics.Postmodernism. innovative and experimental filmmaking of what was later defined as postmodernist cinema. Michael Cimino. such as John Carpenter. brought both allusionism and self-conscious cinematic techniques to new Hollywood production. Martin Scorsese. Maltby. The ‘x’ code opened up the possibilities of addressing a wider range of thematic material within mainstream cinema. 1990: 3) For Ryan and Kellner it was the burgeoning of a more diverse audience with less homogeneous or predictable tastes and expectations than classical cinema audiences that led to a period of financial insecurity and lack of direction. As Carroll argues. New Hollywood and Women’s Films 29 experienced a period of dwindling cinema attendance and decaying cinemas. it also tended to segregate audiences on the basis of age or preferences regarding the presence of explicit sex or violence. the presence of these film-school-educated directors and producers. 1994: 302. armed with a new reverence for classical Hollywood and a familiarity with and enthusiasm for European art cinema. the industrial crisis produced an environment in which the new studio management was unusually receptive to new talent and ideas. Interestingly. such as the erosion of the social fabric and the collapse of the 1950s social consensus (Ryan and Kellner. David Lynch. Belton. This destabilisation of the industry was also exacerbated by the introduction of new censorship codes in the late 1960s. 1982: 54. 1998: 11). George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Cook. but this was more a product of the Paramount ban on theatre ownership (prior to television exhibition) and the changing age. Relying on the appreciation of an educated film-literate minority who . Francis Coppola. hierarchical system allowed the new generation of babyboomer directors and producers to develop more experimental modes of cinema within the mainstream. This influx of talent included many of the directorial stars of new Hollywood. However. the post-Paramount deconstruction of the old autocratic. many cine-historians suggest that it was precisely this period of financial instability and creative uncertainty that brought about the ‘new Hollywood’ golden age of radical. The new Hollywood renaissance cited by many critics tends to be ascribed to the new audiences’ disenchantment with mainstream cinema and the ensuing financial crisis (Carroll. left critics such as Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner also associate the decline of classical Hollywood with wider social factors. Jonathan Demme. 1990: 3. Ryan and Kellner.
European and American styles and forms through the deployment of cinematic allusionism and thus introducing a new. for labelling it. The new generation of filmmakers were active in incorporating and blending high/low. interrogative reconstruction of revered past forms.30 Postmodern Chick Flicks were. such directors developed a self-consciously allusionist style. too. 1982: 79. they learned the exemplary themes. styles. used the nascent critical categories as a crude taxonomy for understanding film. (Carroll. they were caught up in the whirl of discourse and discovery. and expressive qualities as these had been selected and distilled by American auteurism. These filmmakers predictably attempted to incorporate the budding film-historical sensibility – the central intellectual event of their youthful apprenticeships – into their works. Carroll states: Among those engaged in this discovery of film history – particularly American film history – were some people who would become filmmakers. While popular mainstream but . Unlike the later blockbuster use of generic allusion as ‘pastiche’. initially at least. a new collegeeducated cine-literate audience with a new reverence for popular Hollywood and a period of industrial insecurity goes a long way towards explaining the integration of popular (classical) cinematic techniques and the art-house style associated with French New Wave cinema within new Hollywood production. in the process of re-evaluating film as a serious artistic medium. For Ryan and Kellner they extended what critic Biskind (1983) had earlier identified as a pre-existing socially conscious. They. critical strain of film production already apparent in some popular texts of the late 1950s and early 1960s. 1990: 17–48). aligned with the youth movements and identity politics of the late 1960s (Carroll. 1982: 52) This particular configuration of film-school recruits. according to Carroll. most importantly. Ryan and Kellner. Features which were subsequently defined as postmodernist – such as allusionism or the self-conscious manipulation of generic expectation – were thus tested out and developed within popular Hollywood (albeit during an innovative period) and became widely recognised by a large section of the cinema-going public. more self-consciously stylised mode of practice to popular filmmaking. In their study of film history. for fixing standards of seriousness and accomplishment. these filmmakers attempted a more respectful. Like their confreres. these forms of nonrealist experimentalism were. which also paid homage to the great Hollywood auteurs. and. For critics such as Carroll and Ryan and Kellner.
1971). (Belton. In 1982 Carroll warned: With the foreclosure of the prospects for utopia.to late 1970s. the authentic expression of ideas that took place in the past is today replaced by quotation and allusion. 1982: 81) In an extended overview of the development of new Hollywood in the decades following the ‘renaissance’. 1982). David Harvey theorised as a crisis of Fordist economic organisation which produced .Postmodernism. It can deteriorate into mere affectation. 1996: 52) In a similar manner. Ryan and Kellner associate the spread of cinematic allusionism with the death of idealism and genuine experimentation. In particular. Belton argues: . Carroll. and at worst. the work of the new generation of rising directorial stars combined this with aspects of European counter-cinema and the self-conscious genrebending of films such as Bonnie and Clyde (Penn. 1967). (Carroll. a point at which popular cinematic self-consciousness and generic referencing become aligned with the conformity of the big budget ‘highconcept’ blockbusters rather than the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s. . 1960) or Sirkian melodramas manifested a ‘creeping leftism’ (Ryan and Kellner. 1971) and McCabe and Mrs Miller (Altman. New Hollywood and Women’s Films 31 politically liberal texts such as the epic Spartacus (Kubrick. These cine-historical accounts also note a rapid decline in the innovative usage of these features dating somewhere from the mid. The industrial and economic crisis of the 1970s – which among others. 1978) or Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg. . allusionism loses much of its glitter. self-deception when filmmakers or now middle-aged viewers think that in and of itself allusion to film history is charged with the psychocultural importance it had when the sixties turned into the seventies. celebration of traditional masculinity and cultural superiority manifested in texts such as Star Wars (Lucas. the 1970s recession coincided with industrial reconsolidation and its reversion to a more conservative mode of genre production. Ryan and Kellner also suggest that while cinematic innovation flourished in a climate of increasing prosperity. 1990: 3). The Last Picture Show (Bogdanovich. nostalgia. the use of prior cinematic allusion becomes less associated with the self-conscious critical reinvention of previous genres and more closely aligned to an uncritical nostalgia for the dated and illiberal cultural values expressed in prior forms: the generically coded heroism. stylistically youthful and inventive but politically conservative.
For Ryan and Kellner. they suggest that the more experimental mode of allusionist filmmaking buckled under internal pressure from the financiers and dealmakers that came to dominate the post-Fordist structure of new Hollywood in the 1970s. also. the moral ambiguity. Easy Rider and Medium Cool. although aspects of countercultural radicalism lingered on. resonated as. who argues: From the cinema of rebellion represented by films like Bonnie and Clyde. like the accounts of Belton (1994. or more. This politicised chronology of the rightwing shift towards blockbuster production is also endorsed by more recent accounts. (Cook. 1998: 38) Supporting this wider. such as David Cook. The drift from radical postmodernist allusionism to this more conservative form of postmodernist genre reworking was thus exacerbated by the external . Ryan and Kellner argue that as the boundary-testing socially critical texts disappeared. negative perception of new Hollywood. the industry settled back into the production of either ‘conservative’ new genres (such as the occult horror film or disaster movie) or the equally low-risk reproduction and reinvention of earlier generic forms such as the sci-fi fantasy or the action-adventure film (Ryan and Kellner. Echoing Jameson’s account of the increasing commodification of all areas of cultural and artistic products in the era of postmodern production. 1996). Francis Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) or Apocalypse Now! (1979). 1990: 76). strongly in the ‘acclaimed’ works of the new Hollywood auteurs such as Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1977). individualism and strong leadership. Ryan and Kellner’s sustained account of this period stresses the gradual defeat of Hollywood radicalism. open-endedness and multiple points-of-view which characterised the most innovative mainstream film production of the late 1960s and early 1970s were replaced by a broad shift towards texts which emphasised masculine authority. all of these genres also fall within the more general category of the special effects-driven or ‘high-concept’ blockbuster and are broadly aimed at young audiences. America and youth transferred its allegiance to the ‘personal’ cinema of the seventies’ auteurs without realising how corporatist and impersonal it had become.32 Postmodern Chick Flicks the transition to global post-Fordism – provides the wider historical context for the rightward shift which many film critics perceived in new Hollywood productions during this period (Harvey. This was not only expressed in disaster movies or rétro fantasy films but. Cook (1998) and Corrigan (1998). Charting the Reagan era and the rising power of the new right in the 1980s. All in all. 1989: 141–97). they argue.
that while self-consciousness and the implementation of counter-cinematic distancing devices were aspects of this form. the endorsement of traditional notions of male heroism and their relation to a broader rightwing shift.2 Despite the apparent ‘window of opportunity’ offered to certain budding counter-cultural directors during this period. ‘interrogative’ use of allusion was all but eclipsed by the derivative recycling of past styles associated with big budget. that the initially critical. The broad outline of the social/cultural context from which postmodernist cinema developed in Hollywood and the shift from counter-cultural cinema to a mainstream postmodernist cinema of banal pastiche suggested by the broad socioeconomic accounts offered by Carroll. or blockbuster texts which conflate and regenerate the plots and characterisation found in pre-war ‘Buck Rogers’ type adventure serials and to highlight. From a feminist perspective this critical trajectory – particularly its distinction between. New Hollywood and Women’s Films 33 social and political context of the ascendant right and the waning radicalism of the new Hollywood directorial stars themselves. the more radical or ‘authentic’ texts suggested by many of these authors as offering a more progressive version of a postmodernist cinematic practice are rarely those that engage with feminist concerns or women’s experience in any obvious manner.Postmodernism. Feminism. Firstly. Ryan and Kellner or Belton and Cook does not give particular attention to the women’s movement or feminist film production. few women filmmakers . radical and conservative postmodernist filmic practices – requires further analysis and discussion. Thirdly. Critics of new Hollywood are right to emphasise the industry’s enthusiasm for revived DC comic heroes. Secondly. Their accounts therefore overlook the puzzling issue of why the then flourishing women’s cinema movement did not have a greater impact on the emergence of a popular postmodernist mode. that the new Hollywood of the late 1960s provided the ideal industrial and cultural environment to nurture the emergence of a new mainstream cinematic mode later defined as postmodernist. within these forms. put crudely. postmodernist cinema and new Hollywood Looking at accounts of the development of new Hollywood alongside Carroll’s discussion of the rise of cinematic allusionism suggests three important factors concerning the relationship between new Hollywood. its most pronounced feature was its use of prior cinematic allusion linked to both the academic re-evaluation of classical Hollywood and its recirculation through new media exhibition outlets. post-Fordism and postmodernism. youthorientated ‘high-concept’ productions. However.
1986: 188). there is a fairly widespread critical assumption that the emergence of a postmodernist aesthetic within various cultural forms is associated with a gradual process of cultural democratisation. Western grand narrative of cultural taste and authority in favour of the emergence of a plethora of micronarratives (Collins. applauding the demise of the canon and the plurality of the new cultural scene (Huyssen. postmodernist film and popular cinema. 1984: 54). the expansion of further education and the growth and diversification of markets and audiences for popular fictional forms. 1989: 16–28).34 Postmodern Chick Flicks made the kind of cross-over move identified by these critics as a key element of the creative energy which produced the ‘new Hollywood Renaissance’ of the late 1960s and early 1970s. 1984: 57) and decline of high modernist rigour in favour of a cultural celebration of camp. feminist film theory. Thus Jameson notes the abolition of critical distance (Jameson. white. quality and good and bad taste have been turned upside down by the increasing commodification of highbrow artistic forms and the self-conscious turn towards allusionism and cultural eclecticism. As I have already suggested. For Collins in particular. Even allowing for the misty-eyed nostalgia for 1960s radicalism which informs some of these accounts. Cultural critics such as Andreas Huyssen and Jim Collins have celebrated this reconfiguration of perceived cultural value. Linking this shift with longer term developments – such as rising literacy rates. Collins associates the decline of high modernism with the triumph of a more egalitarian cultural scene in which a range of narrative forms jostle for acclaim and attention. post-modernism (which he hyphenates to accentuate its status as a rejection of modernism rather than its latest manifestation) brings with it the welcome disintegration of narrow class-bound notions of taste and cultural authority. kitsch or older popular forms now deemed ‘classic’ as a key feature of the postmodern cultural scene (Jameson. In this sense. making the absence of women directors and feminist cinema all the more significant and enigmatic. . Collins’s view has much in common with the Lyotardian belief in the decline of the hierarchical. the proposition that this period witnessed the development of a new Hollywood style which was influenced by both European ‘counter-cinema’ and older Hollywood forms is extremely persuasive. a new cultural order in which notions of cultural authority. middle-class. The most probable explanation for this absence comes back to the issue of (perceptions of) popular versus mainstream cinema and the specific relationship between the women’s film movement.
in a broad sense. The critical rehabilitation of popular feminine forms – such as romance – by feminist critics can. The development of the postmodernist cultural scene has also witnessed the rise of what Imelda Whelchan describes as ‘retro-sexism’. understood as a contemporary blend of thuggishness and sexism (Whelehan. New Hollywood and Women’s Films 35 This latter view implies an obvious compatibility between postmodernist cultural forms and feminist critiques of ‘male’ modernism. Feminist responses to postmodern theory and postmodernist cinema culture If male critical accounts of postmodernist cinema have not been particularly attuned to feminist issues. that is. postmodern philosophy and social theory. 1986: 44–62). In the next section I will consider the reasons for this absence in more detail through an analysis of the development of feminist film theory and the rise of ‘masculine’ postmodernist cinema. or approaches to. cool and therefore permissible. or in a more general sense. it is also the case that while the last decade or so has produced many examples of feminist interventions in. as yet. 2000: 11) Whelehan’s critique of (largely British) retro-sexist culture (such as the 1990s rise of lad’s magazines) has much in common with Ariel Levy’s more recent critique of the normalisation of the porn industry in the US through the recent spread of ‘raunch’ culture or Susan Fraiman’s discussion of the uncritical cultural celebration of ‘bad boy’ attitudes (Levy. annoying only to badtempered feminists. remained untheorised. patriarchal assumptions of cultural superiority. as Andreas Huyssen points out.Postmodernism. Although. yet feminist critics still fought hard to shift the prejudicial perceptions of these forms and establish them as legitimate objects of critical interest. But the 1990s also witnessed the emergence of a ‘feminised’ popular cinematic practice that has. feminist approaches to postmodernist cinema have been far less numerous. the dissolution of the high/low divide and critiques of modernist elitism have not automatically led to a more positive re-evaluation of either ‘feminine’ or feminist cultural forms by male critics. As I stated in the introduction. the ironically coded celebration of bad boy masculinity has been particularly prevalent in cultish postmodernist cinema. All emphasise the way in which aggressive masculine attitudes and the sexual exploitation of women are coded as ironic. Feminist work on . Fraiman. the Frankfurt school associated ‘mass’ culture with the feminine (Huyssen. be viewed as an aspect of this postmodernist re-figuration of the cultural scene. 2005. the popular postmodernist tendency to revive and celebrate ‘laddishness’. 2003).
36 Postmodern Chick Flicks postmodernist cultural forms have tended to focus on literature and the visual arts rather than on cinema. Angela Carter or visual artists such as Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman or. irony. Indeed. it is patronising to assume that female critics and artists are patiently waiting to be defined or redefined as practitioners of postmodernist creative strategies by male critics (Creed. My question is rather under what conditions can women’s work currently ‘figure’ in such a debate. Margaret Atwood. many women artists and writers have come to be strongly identified with the postmodern by both male and female critics. a man’s discourse. there is no suggestion here that feminism in any sense needs postmodernism as a component or supplement). apparently. As Barbara Creed and Meaghan Morris argued in response to Craig Owens’s early attempt to find points of commonality between postmodern and feminist approaches to cultural forms. Women artists seemed most likely to develop a postmodernist feminist practice in cultural fields such as literature and the visual arts. or whether they should have (for despite the ‘baffled’ expectation. Tracey Emin. When used in this context. many feminist critics argued that women writers and artists had been busy developing postmodernist approaches to narrative forms and visual representation for some time prior to their identification by the largely male-defined discourse on postmodern theory. (Morris. of eventual fiancailles. the hope. more recently. As Morris puts it: The interesting question. 1987: 47). There is general agreement between the male critics I’ve cited that ‘feminist work by women’ can figure when appropriately framed (‘effectively situated’) by what has mainly been. 1988: 12) But despite Morris’s concerns about the intellectual gender-power game played out over the critical terrain of initial definitions of postmodernist art forms. Some obvious examples are writers such as Jeanette Winterson. ‘Feminism and Postmodernism’ (1985). a feminist-postmodernist approach usually indicates a feminist practice which attempts to counteract patriarchal representations through the use of prior fictional allusion. Toni Morrison. in which they already enjoyed a degree of power and recognition. uncontaminated version of female identity. is not whether feminists have or have not written about postmodernism. One reason for this absence is that other areas of cultural production – literature in particular – seemed to provide a more fertile ground for a productive interaction between feminism and postmodernist artistic practices. parody and self-reflexivity rather than the exploration of a more truthful. perhaps. . I think.
those described as postmodernist feminists. 1991: 18) It would be fairer and more accurate to say that while there is no straightforward link between a postmodernist artistic/cultural practice and the ability to unite under a common banner while also recognising . are more likely to revel in mythology. naively essentialist and. such as the writer Angela Carter or the photographer Cindy Sherman. much of which has been castigated as. which makes frequent claims for a postmodern feminism a superior ability to deal with issues of race. at worst. to twist and upend patriarchal mythology from the inside rather attempt to debunk it altogether.) (Modleski. Anglo-American radical or cultural feminist approaches (such as the work of Mary Daly). then. As Modleski rightly points out in her critique of certain postmodernist-feminist approaches. in particular. 1990. contains no substantial discussion of these issues. fantasy or crime fiction – which have previously been predominantly associated with male writers and male audiences. at best. middle-class female viewpoint as universal female experience (Modleski. 1988): Ironically.3 However. 1991: 3). insightful accounts of female experience (often in the autobiographical or ‘confessional’ mode). anti-essentialists may be no more prepared to deal with such issues as race and ethnicity than the ‘essentialists’ whom they criticise for neglecting these issues. Feminism/Postmodernism. one of the problems with this kind of distinction between a ‘radical’ gynocritical feminist and postmodernist feminist practice is that it has often led to a gross oversimplification of previous feminist work. Riley. as Tania Modleski has argued. fantasy and the implementation of anti-realist distancing devices. postmodernist-feminist cultural forms tend to undermine and challenge prior representations without proposing any alternative female essence. (We may note for example. towards poststructuralist semiotic and psychoanalytically informed critiques of the subject and identity. Whether or not their work is explicitly or overtly theoretically aware. New Hollywood and Women’s Films 37 In a broader sense (referring to the wider reconfiguration of highbrow/ lowbrow forms and the reworking of popular literary genres) it has also been applied to feminist reinterpretations of genres – such as sci-fi. that the anthology. Feminist-postmodernist aesthetic strategies are thus aligned with the shift away from ‘gynocentric’.Postmodernism. the anti-essentialist work of critics such as Judith Butler and Denise Riley (Butler. that which promotes a narrow white. If certain modes of feminist practice have attempted to demystify women’s bodies or give more accurate.
Although more clearly located within what might be still regarded as the ‘high-’ or middlebrow than out-and-out popular realm commanded by popular cinematic allusionism or George Lucas and Steven Spielberg films. As feminist-postmodernist forms appeared to flourish in other areas of cultural production. Although some feminist critics did identify a postmodernist practice in the work of some women directors. artists such as Kruger. Much of the present book is concerned with re-addressing examples of feminist cinematic postmodernism. Sherman. conflicting viewpoints or the recognition of ‘micro’ rather than grand narratives than an aesthetic which privileges truth and authenticity. exclusively male. Despite the development of a thriving culture of feminist countercinema. gender roles that has been overlooked through the kind of discursive bias noted by Morris. like the majority of their pre-feminist. By contrast. However. a postmodernist cinema that is either explicitly influenced by feminist film theory and politics (such as Potter’s Orlando or Campion’s The Piano). as a set of aesthetic strategies. . or a more popular ‘allusionist’ female-orientated cinema (such as the films of Nora Ephron) which is also critical of prior. the generation of ‘bratpack’ directors who crossed the counter-cinema to mainstream divide and pioneered the emergence of a popular postmodernist cinema within the mainstream were. Meaghan Morris’s discussion of Nelly Kaplan’s La Pirate’s Fiancee (1969). the divide between mainstream and women’s cinema was simply not porous enough to allow for the development of a cross-over populist. cinematically familiar. the growth of women’s film festivals and feminist film theory during this period. classical predecessors. feminist. it is also the case that when initial conceptions of postmodernist cinematic practice were taking shape (in the late 1980s). Carter or Winterson managed to straddle both sectors of the market while still retaining a feminist critical edge. postmodernist cultural practices are perhaps better equipped to deal with multiple perspectives. postmodernist practice in the manner of literature or the visual arts. for example. readily identifiable examples of a similar kind of postmodernist feminist cinematic practice were distinctly thin on the ground until the 1990s. that is. such films are more clearly aligned with avant-garde counter-cinema than the audience-friendly. The second distinguishing factor that has been crucial in the identification of these artists and writers as postmodernist feminists (although they have also been understood in many other ways) is their relative accessibility and broad-based appeal. little critical attention was given to the possibility of a postmodernist feminist cinema.38 Postmodern Chick Flicks the diversity of female experience.
New Hollywood and Women’s Films 39 allusionist. or the anthology . Claire Johnston – who initially endorsed the view that women’s cinema should be anti-narrative and anti-popular – called for a re-evaluation of the importance of the popular entertainment film and what it might offer feminism and women viewers. 1988: 1). While a new generation of innovative young male directors shifted from the margins to the mainstream.Postmodernism. the initial theoretical paradigms adopted by feminist film scholars and filmmakers during the 1970s left little room for either female spectatorship (on any other terms than self-abnegation) or for the recognition of articulation of feminist politics within popular Hollywood cinema. feminist counter-cinema remained marginal and excluded from popular Hollywood even during the turbulent years of the first ‘renaissance’. early feminist film theory posited an unbridgeable gap between the unconsciously bourgeois. collections of essays. cross-over texts which established cinematic postmodernism as an essentially popular cinematic form (Morris. to a degree. such as The Female Gaze (1988). In order to counter our objectification in the cinema. Indeed. The number of theoretical texts which wholeheartedly expounded or endorsed this perspective was. (Johnston. edited by Lorraine Gamman and Margaret Marshment. Uniting a Marxist critique of classical realism with a psychoanalytically informed approach to the politics of sexual difference. Stephen Heath’s Lacanian critique of classical narrative (1978). feminist film theory’s subsequent total and uncompromising rejection of what was viewed as patriarchal Hollywood mainstream cinema. patriarchal foundation of classical Hollywood narrative and a politically motivated anti-narrative feminist film practice which would expose its hidden machinations to the viewer. such as literature) and. even at the time. Colin MacCabe’s critique of realism (1974) or Mary Ann Doane’s work on the woman’s film (1987) are prominent examples. As many feminist critics have subsequently argued. The absence of feminist intervention during this period reflects both the more inflexibly patriarchal structure of Hollywood production (as compared with the areas of cultural production in which a feministpostmodernist practice was able to achieve recognition. our collective fantasies must be released: women’s cinema must embody the working through of desire: such an objective demands the use of the entertainment film. 1973: 31) By the 1980s. relatively small – Laura Mulvey’s well-known essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975). as early as 1973.
Nevertheless. attempted to find new models of spectatorship which allowed for both a more empowering female viewing experience and one which could encompass a range of female modes of spectatorship. anti-popular. since the initial critical conceptions of postmodernist cinema paid little attention to gender issues (despite both their high prominence in other fields of film criticism and the clear relevance of such questions in relation to golden Hollywood allusion and the nostalgia film) it is not surprising that initial feminist responses to the (largely male) identification of postmodernist cinema took the form of a broadside on the unacknowledged sexism of these theoretical interventions with their critical mapping of a new cinematic form in which questions of gender appeared entirely absent. while Jameson theorised the nostalgia mode in terms of its superficial engagement with the past. For instance (although Jameson is often associated with the critique of rétro . The distinctions between gendered responses to postmodernist cinema become even more apparent in relation to the more innovative. 1987: 66). a period in which critical definitions of postmodernist cinema were very much in the ascendant. Indeed. questioning the unconscious investment in prior gender roles manifested in the nostalgic revival of old Hollywood. as opposed to the somewhat inflexible identification of particular apparently transhistorical and transcultural psychoanalytic conceptions of sexual difference within classical and contemporary cinema. Establishing what was to become something of a pattern in male and female critical responses to postmodernist cinema in the 1980s and early 1990s. one of the appealing aspects of the critical identification of an emerging postmodernist cinematic mode is that it paved the way for a return to analysis which closely examined the historical specificity of cultural forms. anti-narrative psychoanalytic approaches continued to exert a profound influence over the development of feminist film criticism throughout the decade. Jonathon Demme and Quentin Tarantino. cultish examples of the popular form. If constructions of postmodernist cinema tended to turn away from psychoanalytic criticism – a critical terrain which had been well and truly colonised by feminist approaches – Creed turned feminist cine-psychoanalysis back on postmodernist cinema. One of the first and perhaps best known of such feminist critiques is Barbara Creed’s Screen response to Jameson’s analysis of cinematic nostalgia: ‘From Here to Modernity: Feminism and Postmodernism’.40 Postmodern Chick Flicks Female Spectators (1988). particularly the work of ‘new auteurs’ such as David Lynch. edited by Deidre Pribram. Creed argued that its apparent depthlessness actually concealed a deep and troubling seam of unconscious misogyny (Creed. However.
1995: 82) . It seems significant that Jameson’s two chosen examples. New Hollywood and Women’s Films 41 cinema articulated in ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’. As I have already stated. in bullets and blades. yet not a minute goes by without a reference to coons and jungle bunnies.or anti-Tarantino camps. women are no longer necessary. Ryan and Kellner all view Lynch as a rare contemporary practitioner of intelligent. were both films criticised by feminists for their stereotypical and. in Blue Velvet. Blue Velvet (Lynch. Jameson’s essay does draw attention to the presence of gendered tropes such as the femme fatale and the gothic villain. where men watch men. In this world. Male critics tend to give far less weight to issues of violence. Jameson. homophobic fear of the other that explodes in hate speeches. Responses to Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) were also been surprisingly gendered in emphasis. This ranges from Amy Taubin’s damning review of Reservoir Dogs. 1986). Reservoir Dogs is an insular film – women get no more than thirty seconds of screen time. in which she argues: What makes Reservoir Dogs such a 90s film is that it’s about the return of what was repressed in the television version of 70s masculinity – a paranoid. there is certainly a tendency to prioritise issues of gender identity among female critics that was often absent from male critical accounts of the early 1990s. Norman Denzin. Jameson was not alone in his enthusiasm for Lynch’s work. allusionism. 1992: 2) to Patricia Mellencamp’s assertion that Tarantino’s films create: an imaginary and historical place where male fantasies of power and honour and love for other men can be realised at a safe distance. in kicks and blows. 1993: 287). degrading and brutal treatment of female protagonists. But these are considered aspects of the text’s construction of a self-consciously cinematic version of the past as opposed to their relation to the changing social and cultural status of women. (Mellencamp. Jameson’s later extended essay on postmodernism and film argues that certain postmodernist texts use allusion to stage what he refers to as an ‘allegorical’ encounter: a critical exploration of cultural perceptions of past and present read through prior cinematic references (Jameson. 1985: 116–18). people of colour get zero. ingenuity and sophisticated narrative structures. (Taubin. where exhibitionist men are simultaneously objects and subjects of their own desire. rather than banal. This is voyeurism par excellence. gender identity or the absence of women in favour of Tarantino’s wit.Postmodernism. Although male and female critics do not fall into straight pro. 1986) and Something Wild (Demme.
consistently drawing attention to their treatment of women and female spectators. In short. True Romance. 2000: 284). Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. this is precisely what feminist critics have found both significant and often offensive about this particular aesthetic form. texts which prioritise crime. Despite clear differences in approach (while Mellencamp and Taubin accuse Tarantino of excluding women. 1995). or what Sharon Willis refers to as cinematic ‘nostalgia for nostalgia’ (Willis. The selfconscious allusionist style pioneered by popular Hollywood filmmakers of the 1970s seemed to find a natural affinity with the fast editing. 1993: screenplay by Tarantino). critical approaches to postmodernist cinema have continued to focus largely on texts strongly identified as masculine in genre i. rétro soundtracks and thematic preoccupation with male gang culture depicted in texts such as Goodfellas (Scorsese. widely recognised 1990s examples of popular cinematic self-reflexivity – such as Reservoir Dogs – have also been texts which pushed the boundaries in relation to visceral.e. 1990). 1996) and The Usual Suspects (Singer. Trainspotting (Boyle.42 Postmodern Chick Flicks to Sharon Willis’s psychoanalytic interpretation of the text’s articulation of gender and race (Willis. Reservoir Dogs. in their different ways. Pulp Fiction. along with Alison Butler. have all. tended to view the texts’ construction of gender as absolutely central to their appeal. This indicates a form of postmodernist filmmaking which can be distinguished from both the first wave of auteurist allusionism – in which new Hollywood directors sought to pay homage to the best of classical and European art cinema – and the blockbuster celebration of older action and adventure forms which superseded it. Perhaps more significantly. male gang culture and violence. ‘in-your-face’ depictions of screen violence. a development thus strongly linked to the restructuring and rise of new Hollywood and the expansion of the home entertainment industry. In a wider sense it reflects the music. Many of the best-known. This latter manifestation of postmodernist self-reflexivity is marked by its range of ‘lowbrow’ subcultural popular references and specific appeal to a generation of viewers whose formative years were steeped in an unprecedented exposure to classic and contemporary cultural forms. 2000: 189–216). fashion. Willis suggests that the aggressively infantile drives at work in Tarantino actually demand the imagined censure or disapproval of an imagined female presence). Debates about Tarantino also draw attention to what might be referred to as a second or even third stage of postmodernist cinematic allusionism. TV and film industries’ tendency . these feminist critics. while (some) male critics have given scant attention to the treatment of race and gender in texts such as True Romance (Scott.
If the cult of nostalgia goes some way towards explaining the new auteur’s appeal to contemporary audiences. 1982. Reservoir Dogs . Reflecting this difference in approach from the first wave of selfconscious postmodernist directors. Given the predominance of violent images in post-1960s television and film it is not altogether surprising that the second generation of postmodernist filmmakers refer to these in accentuated form. as Charlotte Brunsdon’s work on the seventies ‘independent woman’ or Christine Gledhill’s analysis of Coma indicate. popular cinema was beginning to take on feminist perspectives and produce films in which women and/or female relationships occupied centre stage (Brunsdon. A proudly ‘lowbrow’ director. to be enjoyed with ironic humour. Such texts are valued often precisely because of their status as lowbrow nonsense. New Hollywood and Women’s Films 43 to plunder. Such oft-proclaimed humble origins are very much part of the Tarantino mythology – highlighting his status as an eternal and ordinary fan and distinguishing his roots from that of the film school backgrounds of the previous generation of directorial stars. who states: As the 1980s gave way to the 1990s. it does not fully account for their predilection for depictions of graphic violence. Tarantino’s films are less concerned with the painstaking reverential reproduction of scenarios reminiscent of classic Hollywood (in the manner noted by Carroll in 1982). cannibalise and repackage older forms as ‘classic’ largely on the basis of their value as signifiers of the past as opposed to their continued relevance or innate cultural worth. Tarantino famously acquired his wide and eclectic range of references from working in a video store. whose Hollywood careers were rooted in the new Hollywood renaissance of modernist auteurism. However. The range of references used by the new auteurs include not only classical film but also popular television and – in Tarantino’s case – martial arts movies from the 1970s. redefinitions of masculinity in cinema seemed to give way to reinstatements of masculinity.Postmodernism. than humourously referencing and recycling B movies. This celebration of the lowbrow is one of the features which distinguishes Tarantino from filmmakers such as David Lynch and Martin Scorsese. 1998). Gledhill. Even in the patriarchal context of 1970s Hollywood. it is still a fairly selective view of past cultural forms. The extreme interest in male gang culture and visceral violence exhibited in male-orientated postmodernist films might suggest that the relationship between postmodernist cinema and certain modes of masculinity noted by critics such as Creed in 1987 has become more deeply entrenched in the 1990s. trash television and forgotten seventies pop. This is the position put forward by feminist critics such as Alison Butler.
. Drawing connections between the Die Hard series and Pulp Fiction. signals a double accomplishment: cinema has been reinvented and so has masculinity. Nevertheless. 1976). in form and content. yet its more prominent feature is the destructive nature of the testosteronefuelled male underclass and its relation to an infantilised masculinity that destroys women. such as The Godfather (Coppola. the crossover cult success of 1994. the lack of originality here. The aim of this book is to move away from – rather than add to – critiques of well-known male postmodernist auteurs. narcissism and misogyny became the stock-in-trade for young filmmakers. if such texts attempt to reinvent masculinity it is hardly a triumphant rebirth. (Butler. 2000: 76) While it might be tempting to attribute the perceived ‘failure’ of the (avant-garde) feminist film movement to the onslaught of violent maleorientated texts. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this cycle is their claustrophobic depiction of a hermetically sealed masculine subculture. straight masculinity’ (Pfeil. in which extreme violence. Constrained by both their formal reliance on quotation and allusion and their thematic concern with the criminal underclass. The Deer Hunter (Cimino. the new auteurs’ treatment of violence is significantly different from that of the first generation of post-war youth-orientated directors. .44 Postmodern Chick Flicks (1992) initiated a new cycle in US cinema. 1972). the proposition that male-orientated postmodernist misogyny pushed other radical cinematic forms further into the wilderness needs careful consideration. The ‘positive’ masculine values described by Mellencamp may be one aspect of the hypermasculine gang culture depicted by the new auteurs. Taxi Driver (Scorsese. when the first generation of self-conscious. 1979) and Apocalpse Now! (Coppola. they went on to produce a cycle of 1970s texts that endorsed masculine individualism and authoritarianism. As Ryan and Kellner persuasively argue. Some of the most highly acclaimed films of the period. other men and themselves. . Fred Pfeil argues: To turn from the most recent Die Hard film to Pulp Fiction. it is necessary to readdress the claim that such texts either successfully ‘reinvent’ masculinity or that this has undermined the development of feminist cinema. allusionist auteurs – such as Micheal Cimino or Francis Coppola – gradually shed their youthful idealism. 1979) . 1998: 180) In this respect. is to see now immediately the full emergence of an unabashedly pre-Oedipal white.
yet the manner in which they are ‘recycled’ often provokes amusement rather than respect.Postmodernism. popular images of 1970s masculinity figure prominently in Tarantino’s work. 2000: 282). but as a bizarre. Significantly. quasi-mystical stance towards masculinity and the violence that went with it (Ryan and Kellner. fragments of these earlier texts are also referred to within the work of the new auteurs. He states: Fight Club seems to be a satiric response to works like Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995). As Sharon Willis notes in her analysis of Pulp Fiction. it also. The scene in which The Deer Hunter associated Christopher Walken bequeaths to his friend’s infant son a gold watch carried ‘up his ass’ for the duration of the war is a prime example of this. However. perhaps to its credit. New Hollywood and Women’s Films 45 present violence as both endemic to human society and a legitimate means of retaining individual integrity in the face of social and psychic disintegration. Christopher Sharrett makes a similar point regarding the more recent self-conscious treatment of male violence in David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) as compared to its manifestation in 1990s popular Hollywood blockbusters. lacks the reverential. 1990: 87–95). not only within a socially marginal criminal underclass. films that yearn for the restoration of male authority . such the male group’s discussion of Madonna in Reservoir Dogs. If the new auteur’s approach to violence lacks the gravitas of the first generation of post-censorship mainstream violent texts. devoid of any connection to the extra-cinematic culture from which they originated. self-destructive cult far removed from the social body. harmless or inoffensive. it does resituate it. Such texts are truly ‘cultish’ in that the masculine subculture is not presented (as in the work of the new auteurs of the 1970s) as legitimate source of power. it might also be noted that much of the scene’s humour relies on sending up the pomposity and reverential approach to masculinity associated with these 1970s male icons. The intertextual insularity and extreme nature of this vision of low-life masculinity does not render its treatment of race or gender unproblematic. but as an underclass trapped in some indefinable B movie/trash television past. While Willis’s psychoanalytic interpretation suggests that the scene ‘establishes its pleasures and shocks as rooted in infantile regression to anal sadism’ (Willis. This is one of the reasons why the introduction of real time references. works not to heighten textual self-reflexivity – as it might in a more conventionally realist film – but to add a measure of historical and cultural specificity to texts which would otherwise appear so extraordinarily insular as to be almost free-floating.
2. Indeed. Disney-backed independent Miramax began the costume drama boom of the 1980s and 1990s with the production of Merchant Ivory’s first popular hit A Room with a View (1985) and went on to produce highly successful costume dramas with a more obvious feminist agenda such as Howard’s End (Merchant Ivory. to some degree. allusionist treatment of femininity in many new woman’s films is paralleled by an exaggerated masculinity in nasty postmodernism. bigger independents have also produced ‘cross-over’ popular feminist texts such as Desperately Seeking Susan (Seidelman. Thelma and Louise . masculine) experimental postmodernist production and for many of the reworked ‘postmodernist’ female genres I discuss in this book. the assumption that they edged women’s cinema out of the independent sector does not really stand up to close analysis. what is particularly interesting about the recent growth of the new Hollywood’s independent sector is the way in which the ‘hard’ masculine genres. Go Fish (Can I Watch?). While the (smaller) independent sector continues to produce the occasional ‘art-house’ hit such as Rose Troche’s 1994 black and white low budget lesbian romance. gang movie Heat (1995) also depicts the male criminal underclass in terms of disempowering cultural marginalisation and the de-glamourised abuse of women. Michael Mann’s stylised. looking at the development of postmodernist cinema. (Sharrett. As I will discuss in more detail in later chapters. it is perhaps less surprising that these generic forms co-exist.46 Postmodern Chick Flicks by reference to legendary triumph of primeval patriarchal law. More importantly. given that both are. suggesting the importance of cross-genre analysis. Kill Bill Vol. The expansion of the independent sector (which has predominantly taken place in the 1980s and 1990s) has provided an important space for both riskier (violent. 1 and Kill Bill Vol. such as the work of the new auteurs. Orion). coming back to older gendered genres and reworking them with an awareness of their historical and cultural specificity. maleorientated films. The distanced. 1993) but were also responsible for producing Pulp Fiction (1994) and more recently. For example. while there is no denying the popularity of these violent. self-reflexive. The parallel growth of such apparently polarised forms in the independent sector is intriguing given the contemporary critical shift away from viewing genres as gender-specific. rather than heroic masculine individualism. has flourished alongside the re-emergence of equally successful ‘softer’ feminine forms – such as costume drama or romantic comedy. 2001: 321) In a similar manner. 1992) or The Piano (Campion. 1984.
the greater financial muscle provided by big studio backing has allowed low-budget texts by little known directors to reach wider audiences. it has also helped to revive female-orientated genres such as the romantic comedy or costume drama.Postmodernism. the leading independents. Castle Rock). Anti-essentialism and popular women’s cinema Much of the development of feminist film criticism over the past two decades has been a succession of attempts to break free of the more negative implications of earlier psychoanalytic accounts of the relationship between women and popular cinema. New Line). More importantly. New Line and Castle Rock – produced texts such as: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Lynch. New Line). sometimes referred to as ‘mini-majors’ – Miramax. New Hollywood and Women’s Films 47 (Scott. 1989. In particular. the construction of a theoretical paradigm in which the absence of female subjectivity is a first principle has been more or less a disaster. postmodernist use of past generic forms is frequently aligned with feminist-influenced attitudes towards gender. The expansion of the independent sector (which has predominantly taken place in the 1980s and 1990s) therefore goes some way towards bucking the trend for ‘high-concept’. their self-conscious. Miramax) and Pleasantville (Ross. As Alison Butler suggests. the initial cine-psychoanalytic conceptualisation of the female spectator in terms of lack and absence or the self-abasing association with a masculinised sexual script was more effective in pathologising the feminine than deconstructing the masculine viewing position: For feminist film scholars studying a cultural form so massively dominated by men. Bridget Jones’s Diary (Maguire. Pathe) or A League of their Own (Marshall. 1991. Quentin Tarantino and David Fincher. If the independents have provided space for the male-orientated violent postmodernist cinema of David Lynch. to develop a less defeatist account of feminine spectatorship. 1992. 2001. Parkway Productions). 1992. 1998.4 The female-orientated films mentioned above are stylistically and thematically a world apart from the radical women’s counter-cinema of the 1970s. 2000: 74) Alison Butler rightly expresses doubts concerning a gender politics in which the concept of ‘woman’ or female identity is viewed as undesirably . and in particular. (Butler. romance and history. blockbuster production noted by earlier new Hollywood cine-historians. When Harry Met Sally (Reiner. but as I will demonstrate in later chapters.
As the recirculation and revival of what are assigned as women’s genres demonstrates. given the continuing level of cultural investment in these terms it is difficult to take on patriarchal power relations without taking on and working through culturally ascribed conceptions of gender. support and draw attention to the films of self-consciously politicised feminist directors and. Much revisionist film theory has thus been concerned with the metatheoretical problem of disengaging the theoretically neat but inflexible masculine. feminist critical analysis of popular cinema has been increasingly favourable. Feminist film criticism has continued to discuss. patriarchal model of the implied spectator from the complex. self-conscious interest in playing with and repositioning notions of gender identity and social attitudes and expectations. Deidre Pribram’s Female Spectators (1988) and Lorraine Gamman and Margaret Marshment’s The Female Gaze (1988). One of the first objections to the Lacanian model and the concept of the ‘male gaze’ was its inability to deal adequately with classical narrative texts which are orientated towards and enjoyed by women or to account for other differences between viewers – such as class. the shift away from the early materialist psychoanalytic model was closely tied up with the positive re-evaluation of female viewing pleasure and what have subsequently been redefined as feminine genres. extensive feminist work was undertaken in previously unaddressed areas of classical production – such as melodrama – or assessing the possibility of a ‘resistant’ feminist interpretation of male-orientated genres. 1990: 12) and the work of non-Western female directors such as Moufida Tladi and Deepa Mehta (Butler. such as film noir. Far from ignoring the issue of female spectatorship. 2000: 89–188).48 Postmodern Chick Flicks essentialist. Both in the more popular and more obviously feminist-influenced new postmodernist women’s cycles there is a strong. Alongside the 1980s publication of anthologies such as E. the global contribution of women filmmakers whose work focuses on female historical and cultural experience. Alongside its continued interest in looking at both the work of Western feminist directors such as Potter and Campion or the more avant-gardist work of directors such as Lizzie Borden (de Lauretis. reflecting and responding to the evident . The heavily laden use of irony in such films also suggests the need for a new model of female spectatorship which is devoid of the old pathologising notions of female pleasure and identification. messy conscious and unconscious responses of the ‘real’ viewer. race or sexual orientation – which might determine their responses as much or more than the proffered ‘masculinised’ textual viewing position. in a wider sense.
the shift towards theories which prioritise spectatorial mobility and bring a broader range of subjectivities into play seems less of a rejection of the feminine than the next logical step in moving away from the rigidity of the original model of subject/ text relations. In the light of these developments. New Hollywood and Women’s Films 49 influence of feminist politics on popular genres. working-class. gay or black gaze or male identification with female victimhood – such as Carol Clover’s work on the horror film – suggests that one of the chief pleasures of the cinematic experience is the considerable scope it offers for both trying on other identities and affirming our own identity and experience through that of others (Clover. a greater number and range of representations of these groups on screen would extend and enhance these possibilities and pleasures while also feeding back into broader social. 1992). gender. is how to balance the acknowledgement and affirmation of mobile and diverse subjectivities and subjective responses with a continuing commitment to feminist creative and critical strategies. New female genres: The ironic ‘chick flick’ The question for feminist criticism. Feminist work on the lesbian. therefore. race and sexual identity. Contemporary feminist approaches must continue to promote the work of female filmmakers and pick apart the seemingly obvious attraction between certain kinds of texts and viewers – for example. cultural and institutional conceptions of subjectivity. such as those I discuss later in this book. gay and black viewers are able to take pleasure in and bring their own perspectives to bear on a variety of cinematic forms.Postmodernism. a monolithic feminist theoretical approach is clearly not appropriate. a ‘postmodernist’ feminist film criticism is a mode of film criticism which is not only ‘postmodernist’ in the sense of identifying and analysing postmodernist forms (although that it clearly one of its tasks) but one which has absorbed and responded to postmodern critiques of gender essentialism and ethnocentrism. In this sense. reflect or engage with their subjectivity in any direct or obvious way. . which adopts the pluralist anti-essentialist approach promoted by critics such as Linda Nicholson (1990). Given the range of cinematic forms that it addresses. the surprisingly tenacious preference among female viewers for particular generic forms (such as costume drama) – while also acknowledging the pleasurable possibilities of gender cross-identification and audience engagement with texts which do not seem to speak to. While women.
avant-garde vs classical. But as the boundaries between binaries such . this has often been equated with the perceived 1980s anti. alternative vs mainstream cinema’ established in early cine-psychoanalysis (de Lauretis. entertainment vs political. The particular historical. feminist approaches to cinema must continue to champion the work of feminist directors and highlight the political and cultural importance of gender representation in cinema while also acknowledging that. these issues also intersect with many of the wider debates on postmodernist aesthetic strategies and postmodern culture. best understood in relation to Jameson’s influential model of the ahistorical nostalgia film and the decline of radical politics in the 1980s. it makes little sense to continue to think of women’s. rather than absolute. In feminist terms. mainstream forms of representation. media-controlling male elite and the omnipotent male viewing subject. It seems likely that the shift away from this theoretical paradigm. even in studies of classical cinema. it is even less well equipped to deal with the diversity and scope of new Hollywood production. industrial and cultural circumstances governing the emergence of a postmodernist aesthetic of cinematic allusionism and textual self-reflexivity have already been discussed. In this sense. or even feminist. any later account of women and cinema needs to begin by unpicking the oppositions between ‘Hollywood vs independent. If the Marxist-psychoanalytic model was too oppressively negative and anti-popular to fully account for the complexity of meaning in classical American cinema.or ‘post’-feminist backlash culture of the Reagan era. cinema as an entirely separate species from popular filmic representation. given the considerable impact of feminist politics on contemporary film culture. initial association with the late 1960s new Hollywood renaissance and later manifestation in the form of metageneric highconcept productions ensured that postmodernist cinema has largely been theorised as a regressive right-wing form. and cultural meanings emanate from a plurality of groups rather than being entirely determined by the relationship between a powerful. Its early appearance within the popular sphere. Clearly. has been strongly influenced by developments in contemporary production that bear witness to the way in which cultural politics inevitably make their mark on even popular. As Teresa de Lauretis argues in her 1980s assessment of women’s cinema.50 Postmodern Chick Flicks The early theoretical notion of oppressive patriarchal images bearing down from above has all but disappeared in favour of a Gramscian approach in which textual meaning is viewed as contested. 1990: 6). Yet there is no denying the continued under-representation of certain groups within popular cinema or the fact that the industrial structure of mainstream cinema is still heavily male dominated.
traditional generic forms – in particular. it might also include Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café (Avnet. For example. 1995) or. Frida (Julie Taymor. 2004). Kathryn Bigelow. more self-consciously feminist form. 1991). both romantic comedy and costume drama returned in a bolder. and many – such as Sally Potter. (Butler. as Teresa de Lauretis notes. Sharon Maguire. As Alison Butler also notes: During the 1990s. so too has the association between popular postmodernist allusionism and anti-feminist discourses. 2002) were all female-directed. Although they are still woefully under-represented. their choice of thematic material and generic form indicates the development of a postmodernist feminist sensibility within popular film production. Moufida Tlatli’s Silence of the Palace (1994) Marleen’s Gorris’s Antonia’s Line (1995) and Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady (1995). As I will argue in later chapters. A League of Their Own (Marshall. rather than reject. Similarly. Many of the best-known women’s/feminist films of the last couple of decades have been those that worked more or less within the framework of the historical romance or costume drama. Penny Marshall. Jane Campion. 1990: 24).to high-budget divide. Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991). Alison Anders. women filmmakers are certainly more visible than in previous decades. for example. such as Sally Potter’s Orlando. such as Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts (1985) or Patricia Rozema’s I’ve Heard the Mermaid Singing (1987) formula’ (de Lauretis. 2000: 76) If the list was expanded to include more mainstream examples of texts dealing with cultural memory and history within female-orientated narratives. as I argue in greater depth in later chapters. The women’s bio-pic has also been a form in which female directors are well represented: Iris (Rosa Verges. to re-inflect those already deemed popular with women with a more obvious feminist approach. 2002) and Sylvia (Christine Jeffs.Postmodernism. the 1980s saw the revival of ‘the romance or fairytale adapted to accommodate films dealing with lesbian relationships. Patricia Rozema. Perhaps more significantly. sensuous and rigorous ways. 1993). I would list. One sign of this is the tendency to work within. more recently. such texts range from . a number of significant women’s films have engaged with historical situations in meticulous. How to Make an American Quilt (Moorhouse. Jane Campion’s The Piano or Stephen Daldry’s The Hours. Mira Nair and Beeban Kidron have successfully crossed the low. Far from Heaven and Mona Lisa Smile. New Hollywood and Women’s Films 51 as Hollywood versus independent and entertainment versus political cinema have gradually dissolved.
At the same time. of ‘history at an end’ if it is to represent women’s past losses and imagine their future gains. however. yet their gendered engagement with issues of history. a postmodernist feminist filmic practice highlights and . At its best. self-conscious ‘chick flick’. reclaim the banality – in the sense of everydayness – of gender. memory and identity is rarely nostalgic in the superficial manner that Jameson or Carroll’s analysis of early cinematic allusionism suggests. sexuality and sexual orientation. (Petro. avant-garde project of women’s cinema. as Patrice Petro argues. both forms relying on and exploiting the audience’s generic expectations. . as Charlotte Brunsdon has argued. a text aimed at female audiences.52 Postmodern Chick Flicks the ‘rigorous’ to the downright sentimental. The self-conscious approach manifested within many reworked (new) feminine genres suggests points of commonality between these and revised male genres featuring women. Postmodernist-feminist history must: . often working through a recognisable feminine genre but also playing with and often critiquing the form is also indicative of not only the feminist appropriation of postmodernist techniques but a broader feminist re-evaluation of popular culture in which. How far feminists should defend or rehabilitate feminine cultural forms continues to be a contentious issue – some of the new self-conscious female cycles are forms that are certainly more ‘progressive’ than others. the feminist road movie (notably Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise. given women’s exclusion from grand historical narratives and the public stage. 1991) or all-female westerns such as Tamra Davies’s Bad Girls (Kaplan and Davies. Indeed. . The rise of a new kind of clever. appear more obviously compatible with the theoretical shift away from gender/ text identification into notions of spectator cross-identification and the disintegration of the anti-popular. it must refuse postmodern melancholy and its discourses of lack and loss. 1996: 199) The cinematic revival of conventional ‘feminine’ forms has been given much less critical attention than the simultaneous trend towards generic reworkings that situate women in conventional male roles. femininity is no longer ‘the other’ of feminism (Brunsdon. This is perhaps because the emergence of high-profile genre/gender reworkings. 1994). one of the tasks for feminist-postmodernist historicity is to find ways of both exploring and celebrating women’s history through the analysis of everyday trivia and the smaller domestic details. 1997: 84–85). such as sci-fi ‘action women’ in texts such as the Alien series.
New Hollywood and Women’s Films 53 explores the tensions in traditional feminine genres. the cultural construction of gender identity. in a broader sense. they often use this in an exploratory or symbolic sense. Thus while recent forms of costume drama do not reject the sartorial ostentation of the form. . As I argue in later chapters. re-inflecting their assumptions and conventions with an ironic feminist consciousness. At worst. superior treatment of past modes of screen femininity – exhibited in films such as Down with Love or The Stepford Wives – which nonetheless registers a level of distance from older forms of female oppression. social ethics and. feministinfluenced ‘chick flick’ requires a revised view of postmodernist cinema (previously defined largely in male terms) which can accommodate the complex interaction between classic and contemporary genres in these revived women’s forms. and the way in which older expectations of generic gender/power relations are playfully repositioned in the light of the culture’s broader registration of feminist approaches to sexual morality. the more popular ‘woman’s melodramas’ of the early 1990s treads a fine line between traditional notions of feminine virtue and contemporary notions of female independence.Postmodernism. aspiration and achievement. the emergence of a self-conscious. Similarly. drawing attention to its significance in carrying the weight of social status and signifying the boundaries of gendered behaviour. the new female cycles exhibit a hollow.
she poses the question: . ironically. also paralleled by increasing industrial and popular media interest in the female audience. (Cook.2 The Early 1990s ‘Postmodernist’ Melodrama: Female Virtue in the Consumer Age In Pam Cook’s influential discussion of the woman’s film. there is only ‘cinema’ and ‘the women’s picture. How is this disparity between academic. science-fiction or the action genre). as feminist criticism turned away from the concept of women’s films. critical interest in the woman’s film had largely shifted away from the underlying political and cultural causes for its existence to the question of whether it was ever really a valid generic or critical category in the first place. the trade press were busily talking up the success of a cycle of high-profile femaleorientated hits and predicting that the decade would produce a ‘boom’ in female-orientated film production cycles. or lack of interest in. why does the women’s picture exist? There is no such thing as ‘the men’s picture’. Paradoxically. relegating them to the margins of cinema proper. specifically addressed to men. a certain unease regarding the whole notion of female-orientated texts and the woman’s film seems to have crept into discussions of women’s forms during this period. there 54 . 1983: 17) By the early 1990s. While feminist film criticism began to open up and develop new approaches to traditionally ‘masculine’ areas of cinematic production (such as horror. popular and industrial interest in female genres to be accounted for? As I argued in Chapter 1. . . Yet the growing academic scepticism towards.’ a subgroup or category specifically designed for more than half the population. the analysis of female-orientated texts was.
This raises difficult questions regarding how to situate contemporary female-orientated texts in relation to different modes and applications of what can broadly be described as postmodern cultural theory and its critique of gender binaries. albeit indirectly. across a range of disparate texts on the sole basis of their assumed address to the female audience (Altman. before looking more closely at the first of these 1990s cycles – what I refer to as the ‘postmodernist’ melodrama – the apparent contradiction between the postmodern critical case against the female-orientated genre canon and the industry’s simultaneous claims for their triumphant return require closer analysis. the feminist critical constitution and rehabilitation of the ‘woman’s film’ in the 1980s is nonetheless singled out as a particularly extreme example of critical will over industrial classification. Indeed.The Early 1990s ‘Postmodernist’ Melodrama 55 is much evidence to support the view that the 1990s did indeed witness a resurgence of what are widely perceived as female-orientated forms such as the domestic melodrama. While his overall argument makes a strong and persuasive case for the role of critics – rather than audiences or the industry – in establishing generic boundaries and focusing on particular forms. However. the influence of postmodern gender theory – and its critique of feminist ‘essentialism’ – is also closely related to the feminist disengagement from this field in the early 1990s. what are widely regarded as female-orientated cultural forms? This book is strongly based on the analysis of new female-orientated cycles of production and thus endorses the latter argument. In his recent re-assessment of genre theory. Rick Altman questions what he views as the widespread circulation of the generic category. Altman traces the critical history of the woman’s film and identifies the process whereby the critical production of the form grew out of studies of melodrama in the early 1970s. These contemporary filmic forms can be usefully understood through a combination of postmodernist and feminist perspectives. romantic comedy and costume drama and that the particular cycles which emerged during this period are strongly influenced by postmodernist aesthetic techniques and. ‘woman’s film’. Altman argues that feminist critics were quick to establish the family melodrama – as opposed . as I will demonstrate. postmodern theoretical approaches to history. 1998: 27–33). gender and genre. However. and interest in. Should a postmodern critical approach to the issue of gender and genre work towards the dissolution of gender/genre oppositions or integrate postmodern approaches to cultural theory with an earlier feminist critical attraction to. a feminist critical interest in what I define as female-orientated postmodernist genres is not incompatible with a postmodern theoretical critique of gender essentialism.
the overall tone of his discussion of the woman’s film casts feminist critics in a conspiratorial light. popular novels and television programmes. 1996) strongly emphasise their historical and cultural specificity. but feminist critics have generally been somewhat cautious of using the term in relation to post-classical texts. The woman’s film did undoubtedly gain credibility in the 1980s as a recognisable classical filmic form. feminist critics placed women at the centre of the form. Increasingly. strongly associated with the particular conditions of women’s oppression in the 1930s and 1940s. Doane’s analysis marked the cycle’s coming of age as a distinct generic category defining it particularly in relation to an obsessive interest in women’s psychological pain and trauma. many of the critics who were active in raising the profile . Thus studies such as Mary Ann Doane’s analysis of the medical or gothic woman’s film in The Desire to Desire (1987) or Pam Cook’s analysis of costume drama (Cook. One reason for this is that the woman’s film is primarily viewed as a pre-feminist form. Furthermore. the term woman’s film has been used as a broad-based banner flown at academic conferences and film festivals alike under which a variety of activities may march arm-in-arm.56 Postmodern Chick Flicks to the action or adventure melodrama – as paradigmatic of the form. 1998: 33). redefining it as a ‘feminine’ domestic genre and eventually subsuming it under the more general banner of the woman’s film. the corpus was expanded to include not only classic Hollywood films. Altman suggests that Mary Ann Doane’s removal of quotation marks from the term in The Desire to Desire (1987) boldly dispelled any remaining ambiguity concerning the genre’s legitimacy. By shifting the critical focus towards this subcycle of the melodrama. (Altman. Aside from the subtle allegations of academic skullduggery. Altman goes on to argue that this triumph of feminist critical intervention empowered feminist critics to then freely attach the term to more contemporary texts: Starting with Annette Kuhn’s 1982 Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema and E. Citing the growing body of feminist work on the classical woman’s film in the early 1980s. placing great emphasis on the apparently unassailable status of women’s genres (Altman. 1998: 33) Although Altman finally argues that feminists are justified in carving out their own critical and professional territory. Ann Kaplan’s 1983 Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera. Altman’s discussion underplays the continuing problems attached to the generic status of texts targeted at women. but also recent films and video produced by women.
the woman’s film – with its associations with the weepy. ‘independent heroine’ movies of the 1970s – An Unmarried Woman (Mazursky. Douglas Day Stewart’s Thief of Hearts (1984) and Susan Seidalman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) notes the tendency – common in later women’s cycles – to incorporate a feminist critique of the discourse of romantic love within the overall romance framework. disappeared from the cultural scene . Molly Haskell – one of the first feminist critics to draw attention to the woman’s film – stated: Women-orientated films. .The Early 1990s ‘Postmodernist’ Melodrama 57 of classical female-orientated genres specifically restrict the definition to classical Hollywood. until the 1990s there were actually few attempts to take the concept of female-orientated popular cinema across the classical/ post-classical divide. male-directed. the female protagonist is a writer of pulp romance whose textual adventures undercut and contrast with the idealistic view of heterosexual romance perpetuated in her novels. Charlotte Brunsdon’s 1982 discussion of the popular. and there is little attempt to appeal to women in either regular film or night-time television. Far from becoming a catch-all term for classical and contemporary female-orientated texts. . Similarly. This influence has waned to the point that the only films being made for women are the afternoon soaps. female matinee audience – has more often provided a jumping-off point for comparative readings which address the differences between classical and contemporary women’s texts. Mimi White’s (1989) analysis of the development of a 1980s cycle of female-orientated texts – Robert Zemekis’s Romancing the Stone (1984). 1982: 20). characterisation and narrative resolution which bear testament to ‘a new female audience . 1979: 187) Despite Altman’s assertion of unbridled classical and contemporary canon formation. (Haskell.1 For example. 1978).2 . at one time the “matinee audiences” had considerable influence on movie production and the popularity of certain stars. only properly understood in relation to a whole range of extra-textual cinematic social. like the women-orientated plays from which many of them were adapted. in Romancing the Stone. . . 1978) – traces their thematic relationship to the 1940s woman’s film while also highlighting the differences in mode of address. For example. Girlfriends (Zinneman. but clearly feminist-influenced. 1978) and Julia (Weill. political and economic factors’ (Brunsdon. Those that did address more contemporary femaleorientated texts are generally tentative about applying the term ‘woman’s film’ outside of its established classical context.
Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton) in The Terminator (Cameron. 1998: 26. The increasing presence of ‘iconic’ female protagonists in traditionally male action roles – such as Ripley (Sigorney Weaver) in the Aliens series. to a certain extent. She argued that the new feminist canon worked to create and legitimate a restrictive notion of the female spectator who then came to be situated as the natural and exclusive audience for such forms. If the growth of new areas of critical interest – such as the female-centred action-adventure film – was. the female audience led to ‘rapid canon formation’ and the critical construction of a body of work on women’s genres ranging from the woman’s film to soap opera and women’s magazines (Brunsdon. Brunsdon suggested that the 1980s tendency to focus on forms identified as in some way belonging to. often derogatory. ‘Pedagogies of the Feminine: Feminist Teaching and Women’s Genres. Charlotte Brunsdon’s Screen article. exacerbated by the desire to move away from the earlier. according to Brunsdon. it also signalled a new postmodern direction in feminist thinking on these subjects which entailed taking on notions of multiple gender and sexual identifications.’ was indicative of a wider critical movement away from the analysis of female genres which was strongly influenced by postmodern cultural theory. In making a case against what she perceives to be the ‘canonisation’ of female cultural forms. The tendency to view female spectators and cultural forms in this way was. while the ‘gynocentric’ concept of female-orientated texts came up against the notions of spectatorial cross-identification and accusations of gender essentialism. or associated with. Schatz. one of the reasons that feminist critics were keen to rehabilitate the popular classical woman’s film during the 1970s and 1980s was to establish the importance of classical female audiences during a period in which contemporary female viewers appeared all but forgotten by the mainstream industry. Indeed. feminist evaluation of femaleidentified fictional forms (charged with perpetuating patriarchal . 1993: 19). 1991) – created much critical excitement and interest. 1984) and Terminator 2 (Cameron. a response to changes in production. But the academic shift in the 1990s away from the analysis of both classical and contemporary female-orientated forms was also related to a more general theoretical critique of the notion of gendered genres.58 Postmodern Chick Flicks The rarity of these attempts to define a post-classical woman’s film is also clearly related to the post-Fordist restructuring of ‘new Hollywood’: its promotion of the special-effects driven action-adventure ‘blockbuster’ and its strong and well-documented gravitation towards young male rather than mature female audiences from the 1970s onwards (Maltby. 1991: 364).
Drawing on the antiessentialist work of Denise Riley. In this sense. If the terrain of bodily essentialism has been re-addressed by contemporary theories which stress either the ‘performativity’ of gender behaviour. identity-based progressive social movements – whose project is to forward the interests of one particular social group – can find it difficult to accommodate the competing claims of other forms of identification or affiliation outside the group among those they seek to represent and support (Nicolson. Brunsdon’s critique of female genre analysis is echoed by other critical discussions of female genre work such as Ien Ang’s re-interpretation and critique of Janice Radway’s work on the romance (Ang. According to Brunsdon. 1988) or Andrea Stuart’s re-analysis of Janice Winship’s work on women’s magazines (Stuart. women’s magazines or the woman’s film. 1990). With particular reference to Donna Haraway’s ‘cyborg’ feminism she argues that the category ‘woman’ needs to be based on a consciously chosen political affiliation rather than a ‘natural matrix of unity’ grounded in biological sexual difference (Brunsdon. The key issue here is one of feminism’s oldest problems but one which postmodern theory has brought back to the fore: that of distinguishing between the historically and culturally specific notions of what constitutes ‘woman’ and the real women thought to exceed these definitions but who are nonetheless subject to and constructed through them. Nicolson. 1991: 337). Judith Butler and Donna Haraway. feminism has also been accused of denying women other forms of identification or political and social allegiances. 1991: 373). feminist criticism needed to avoid the tendency to see-saw between ‘celebrating or pathologising the pleasures of gynocentric texts’ in an attempt to define authentic and inauthentic modes of feminine identity (Brunsdon. the body as a space of fantasy or the technological possibility of erasing sexual difference altogether. 1987) have accused feminism . attitudes and behavioural forms to biological sexual differences. 1990: 2). Brunsdon and Nancy Cott (Cott. Brunsdon’s critique is part of a widespread postmodern rejection of what was perceived as an earlier feminist willingness to ascribe common characteristics. As postmodern (feminist) critics such as Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson argue. Academics such as Fraser. Brunsdon finally suggests that one solution to the problem may be to attach less significance to both ‘feminine’ cultural forms and female identity altogether. This critique belongs more broadly to what can be described as postmodern gender theory and the attack on the perceived gender essentialism of earlier feminist approaches.The Early 1990s ‘Postmodernist’ Melodrama 59 notions of femininity) into a triumphal and recruitist re-evaluation and defense of feminine cultural forms such as soap opera.
If academic research based on female-orientated film genres was as ubiquitous and powerful as the anti-essentialist argument suggested. the question of what the mainstream film industry expect them to enjoy and what . the study of what are culturally deemed ‘feminine’ forms can only be charged with essentialism if its purpose is to bolster an unproblematic identification between female audiences and particular textual or generic forms. In the light of the return of women’s film genres over the last fifteen years. the psychoanalytically informed notion of the classical woman’s film was more concerned with ‘the feminine viewing position’ as a site for exploring the impossibility of femininity as an active subject position and deconstructing the way in which its unusually strong presence in these texts threw mainstream patriarchal cinema off-balance. this view seem to somewhat overplay the power of academic criticism and the canonical status awarded fictional forms associated with women. the accusation that the analysis of female-orientated texts inevitably leads to essentialist views of gender identity is far from clear-cut. Women’s films in the early 1990s: The trade press response The feminist shift away from the analysis of gendered genres was thus a product of both a changing cultural scene – in which such distinctions no longer appeared so clear cut – and a concurrent shift in critical emphasis in which staking out and defending feminine cultural forms was no longer necessarily viewed as a progressive strategy. Although it is important to maintain a distinction between the assumed female viewer. or the textually constructed female viewing position and real female viewers (whose responses to the same text will differ).3 The anti-essentialist thrust of some early 1990s criticism may act as an important corrective to the tendency to assume a natural fit between the female audience and certain textual forms or to assume a uniform response among a diverse group of female spectators who constitute that audience. as long as women are regarded as a distinct section of the audience.60 Postmodern Chick Flicks of privileging biologically based gendered selfhood over equally important divisions between women on grounds of class. would it have been displaced so rapidly? Would the return of women’s films genres have received so little critical attention? More importantly. race or sexual orientation and thus of becoming as authoritative and inflexible as the patriarchal forms of thought it sought to challenge and overthrow. While some ethnographic work on female-orientated genres closely addresses the relation between actual viewers and certain kinds of texts. However.
1991: 20). 1990). Warner president D. 1990: 10) . . In addition. Moreover. As critics noted. Feminist critics should resist the temptation either to defend these forms on grounds of their underdog cultural status or demonise their constructions of femininity. The popular circulation of the term ‘chick flick’ in recent years to describe texts headed by a female lead and driven by emotion rather than action or adventure is. after the long-running success of Pretty Woman and Ghost (the top grossing films of 1990). indicative of the continuing importance of these categories. popular discourses on mainstream cinema – such as film reviews and the trade press – continue unselfconsciously to categorise texts on the basis of their presumed gendered appeal. should remain central to feminist film criticism. Ghost (Zucker. but. you will probably sell two tickets instead of one. As I will demonstrate below. If they want to go to the movies they usually drag their date . over the last five or six years the adult female audience has taken on more importance to us in marketing . Sleeping with the Enemy (Reuben.’ (Grove. women do have a dominant effect. Barry Reardon told The Hollywood Reporter: . It is therefore difficult to ‘deconstruct’ gender identity without awarding them close attention. For example. ‘in the final analysis it seems more important to struggle over what it means to be a woman than over whether or not to be one’ (Modleski. . . the perceived ‘revival’ of popular women’s films in the 1990s has produced a heightened popular media interest in this topic. . 1991) and Indecent Proposal (Lynn. 1993). The trade/review press interest in the revival of female-orientated forms initially focused on a spate of early 1990s films – Pretty Woman (Ross. . . one of the strongest reasons for feminist criticism to continue paying attention to these areas of production is the continuing popular media investment in the concept of gender-specific filmic forms. The success of these texts thus initiated much critical and trade press discussion of the tastes and behaviour of the female audience. even when used with a degree of irony. Cultural forms aimed at women remain an important index of socio-cultural fantasies. 1990). these female-orientated blockbusters drew heavily on classical female-orientated forms and tended to be assessed in terms of their revival of themes and forms associated with classical Hollywood. expectations and attitudes towards gender identity. as Tania Modleski argues in her critique of anti-essentialist thinking.The Early 1990s ‘Postmodernist’ Melodrama 61 kind of texts they respond positively to.
As Jim Hillier comments in The New Hollywood: In fact. It used to be that we only made pictures for teenage boys. the image of the average moviegoer as a teenager that has been around since the 1960s no longer holds true. is very strong. quoting Fox production chief Roger Birbaun’s statement: The demographic on women. male audiences. While the proportion of under-30s in the audience has slipped from 67 per cent in 1984 to 56 per cent in 1990. ‘adult female-appeal pictures also tend to cost less to produce than action-adventure aimed at younger males’ (Grove. 1996: 93).62 Postmodern Chick Flicks Another appealing factor for the industry is that. (Hillier. This comment is indicative of the way in which much of the industrial interest in the female audience was related to concerns about the continued viability of its post-1960s blockbuster action-adventure-orientated production strategy and its tendency to cater for the perceived taste of young. Cycles that were perceived as heralding the return of the women’s film were. and 25 per cent were aged 21–29. As these comments indicate. as Grove points out. the female friendship or ‘group . today. 1993: 33) Similarly. 31 per cent of the American audience was in the 12–20 year old bracket (which makes up 15 per cent of the population). This leaves those over 30 responsible for 44 per cent of ticket sales (30–39 year olds accounting for 20 per cent of admissions and over-40s for 24 per cent). that of the over-40s increased from 15 per cent to 24 per cent. (Hillier. 1990: 10). Screen International’s 1995 Box Office Review asserted: ‘After years of making action and adventure films for boys of all ages studio executives are concluding that a new audience has emerged that is changing all the rules: women’ (Bahiana. making 56 per cent of the audience under 30. The greying of the movie-going audience (which reflects that of the population at large) will undoubtedly begin to have its effects on the movies being made. and it makes it exciting that a studio can develop a slate of pictures that doesn’t just cater to one demographic. 1993: 33) Hillier relates this demographic shift to an industrial strategy to pursue female viewers. along with the romantic melodrama of the early 1990s. In 1990. now all our demographics are broader and deeper than that. the ‘return’ of women’s films was perceived as a phenomenon that spanned various different cycles of production rather than one particular form.
1999: 93). Jim Hillier also doubts there has really been any long-term shift in the industrial perception of female viewers: The industry is on the whole very short term in its thinking and tends to ricochet around trying to repeat successes. Olivia Goldsmith and Amy Tan). Peter Kramer suggests that while studio executives professed their renewed commitment to the female audience. 1995: 32) Other critics were more sceptical about Hollywood’s much talked of desire to embrace the female viewer. The First Wives Club and The Joy Luck Club were all based on popular women’s fiction (by Terry McMillan. 1995) and How to Make an American Quilt (Moorhouse. Thus having . the ‘feminisation’ of production predicted by studio executives following the early 1990s success of Ghost and Pretty Woman failed to materialise and Hollywood went back to its tried and tested action-adventure formula (Kramer. 1995). the production of romantic comedy and costume drama is more evenly spread across the decade. Jocelyn Moorhouse’s How to Make an American Quilt and Lesli Linka Glatter’s Now and Then). The Joy Luck Club (Wang. Aside from the three melodramas directed by women among this group (Penny Marshall’s Beaches. the romantic comedy and costume drama. Waiting to Exhale. Boys on the Side (Ross. While this cycle is heavily concentrated in the mid-1990s. 1993). The female friendship cycle can be stretched to include some texts from the late 1980s such as Penny Marshall’s Beaches (1988) or Herbert Ross’s Steel Magnolis (1989) but tends to be particularly associated with the girl-gang or female buddy texts of the mid-1990s. (Franke. Now and Then (Gatter. Lizzie Franke’s 1995 Premiere analysis of female-orientated films begins by stating: In the ‘30s and ‘40s ‘women’s pictures’ were all the box-office rage and the likes of Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck called the shots. such as Waiting to Exhale (Whitaker. Kramer suggests that the considerable attention given to this subject in the trade press in the early 1990s on the basis of a handful of hits actually indicates the degree to which this section of the audience had been neglected for the previous two decades. Now led by Little Women and this month’s Boys On The Side the ‘women’s picture’ is back. Indeed. In the ‘80s we had Kim Basinger in skimpy clothing traipsing through swamps after Richard Gere. For example. 1996).The Early 1990s ‘Postmodernist’ Melodrama 63 ensemble’ film. In his analysis of female-orientated production trends and trade press responses to them. 1995). the trade press and fan magazines were also picking up on the trend. The First Wives Club (Wilson.4 By the mid-1990s. 1995).
In the 1970s that figure went down to 5 per year. that is. So the adult female audience is ‘rediscovered’ and played to. worldwide box office figures for the 1990s show romantic comedy holding up well throughout the decade and less ‘popular’ female genres. Prince of Tides becomes a hit and implies. such as the costume drama. it is then faced by the failure of Hudson’s Hawk. while Kramer is right to note that only Ghost and Pretty Woman were ‘top’ US box-office successes (occupying first and second place in 1990). female-orientated films – i. . She states: There has been a steady rise over the last fourteen years in the production of what are referred to in popular reference sources as Hollywood ‘romance’ films. although they have not in any sense eclipsed the Hollywood focus on action–adventure films. it is possible to assert that. (Preston. . before. putting issues of women’s films back on the popular agenda and leading to the circulation of terms such as ‘chick flicks’. (Hillier. Between 1960 and 1969 there were an average of 7 romances released a year. the annual average rose to 26. To this day Hollywood gives the impression of being very unsure as to who its audience. family and friendship – sustained their profile since the early 1990s. Between 1990 and 1996. on the contrary. . Hollywood has not approached this level of romance films since the 1950s’.64 Postmodern Chick Flicks assumed that what will succeed is action and or/star-orientated pictures. that perhaps it is . those featuring a female lead and focusing on the perceived ‘woman’s realm’ of relationships.5 Catherine Preston’s work on romantic comedy and romantic drama confirms this view. peaking at 40 in 1991. Furthermore. The hyperbolic response to the perceived shift in production is in itself significant. scoring well for independent charts. Days of Thunder and Another 48 HRS alongside the success of much cheaper pictures like Pretty Woman and Ghost. In 1980 the production of romances began to rise and between 1984 and 1989 an average of 20 were released each year. until the failure of For the Boys implies that perhaps it is not out there after all. the debates surrounding the production and popularity of these texts nevertheless indicate the degree to which the popular cultural evaluation and discussion of film texts has been attuned to gender issues since the early 1990s.e. or audiences are. 1993: 33) If the female-orientated success stories of the early 1990s were exaggerated by industry spokespeople and some enthusiastic critics. 2000: 229) Given these figures.
Universal and Buena Vista – are now female-led. A broader view of the industry does therefore suggests that despite the lower numbers of female directors (particularly in popular mainstream production) the general increase in women working in other areas of . For example. 2004: 11). nine out of ten of the top 250 Hollywood films in that year were directed by men (Tutt. Gale Anne Hurd and Christine Vachon have long been key figures within the industry. This is understandable given that. it appears that women have fared better in recent years. Women are also well represented in marketing. In the latter area women such as Paula Wagner. Jane Campion’s 1993 best director Oscar for the innovative costume drama. did not result in the predicted string of similar awards for women filmmakers in the following years.The Early 1990s ‘Postmodernist’ Melodrama 65 As the debates on this subject indicate. gaining ground but still shamefully underrepresented) wrote more complex and more numerous roles for women. Lost in Translation. as suggested in the previous chapter. the ‘return’ of the woman’s film has been attributed to a variety of causes: the shifting demographics of American audiences (a growing sector of over 30s assumed to be less interested in action–adventure films). 2004). Although only the Vachon is associated with female-orientated productions (such as Far from Heaven and Boys Don’t Cry. driven egomaniac as factors which continue to impede the progress of female directors (Kay. Laura Ziskin. as a 2002 survey conducted by Martha Lazen found. The latter point requires some further analysis. like directors. in particular. The Piano. Paramount. A decade passed before another female nominee appeared in this prestigious category and Sophia Coppola’s 2003 nomination for another ‘sensitive’. but marginally increased presence of women working in mainstream film production. Industry spokespeople cite anti-social working schedules and the expectation that gifted directors should conform to the masculine stereotype of the charismatic. development and. the industry’s attempt to extend any offbeat. Lazen’s survey also found that women writers (who were. unexpected hit into a cycle or. Although femaleorientated cycles have continued to flourish from the early 1990s onwards there is little evidence that female directors have achieved greater prominence on the back of this trend. was only the third in the entire history of the academy awards. Although Coppola missed the Oscar – gaining the less prestigious best screenplay award – the nomination was still viewed as providing a significant boost for aspiring women filmmakers. the still limited. Four of seven main Hollywood studios – Columbia. production. But if the focus is shifted away from the undoubtedly high profile area of directing. emotion-driven film. Pierce. 1999).
The baseline in popular (review/trade press) definitions of what is perceived . music being a prominent factor. For example. Lizzie Franke argues: All it takes is a few chords of soft tinkly piano music to tell us exactly what kind of film Boys on the Side is going to be. then watch the trailer for Outbreak and hear the brisk drum roll. when women’s films had virtually disappeared from popular film production (Kay. Are some women’s cycles more ‘feminine’ than others? Or less open to male viewers? If so. 2004: 11). 1995: 32) But even this distinction is true only of the female friendship or domestic melodrama (in which tinkly piano music does indeed feature prominently). Just two chords and we know that we’ve got a whole symphony of emotions on the way. contemporary female stars still lag behind their male counterparts in the salary stakes and the ability to open a picture – Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz are currently viewed as the only female stars who can do this – but they certainly exist in higher numbers. (Franke. why? What is it that signals a text’s gendered address? While critics generally opt for the presence of at least one prominent female figure and an emphasis on emotion driven drama. . while costume dramas (with the exception of Michael Nyman’s famous composition for The Piano) tend to use existing classical scores. Contemporary romantic comedies (such as those produced/directed by Nora Ephron) often favour reworked jazz classics. The resurgence of women’s genres also created a new generation of female stars associated with the new chick flicks: Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan in the early 1990s and more recently. Tinkly piano music for the girls. 2004: 11). Again. Sandra Bullock. and command proportionally higher salaries than the female stars who came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s. . marching orders for the action and macho posturing in store . drum rolls for boys: they may as well have marked the sex divide with pink and blue colour schemes. Cameron Diaz.66 Postmodern Chick Flicks popular film production has been a factor in the promotion of femaleorientated cycles (Kay. there are clearly also metalinguistic signals. Listen to this. Once sufficiently established as bankable stars – via the new femaleorientated cycles – their popularity then fuelled the demand for further female-centred and female-orientated productions. Reese Witherspoon and Renee Zellwegger. But the broader concept of women’s genres raised in these debates tells us relatively little about what constitutes a contemporary women’s film or how the concept can operate across a fairly diverse spectrum of textual forms.
this shift in mode of address is informed and made possible by wider socio-cultural developments in which it is possible to perceive a critical distance between past and present modes of female subjectivity. or a gender neutral formal element (such as humour in romantic comedy). The new cycles register and re-inscribe a broader and. Interestingly. Furthermore. 1987: 17). friendship or family. 2001). childrearing – a predominant theme in classical women’s texts such as the ‘maternal’ melodrama – is rarely a key issue within any of the contemporary female cycles. happier range of female experiences. Sweet November (O’Connor. the medical discourse narrative of female psychological and physical trauma largely faded along with the classical woman’s film. it is not surprising to note that certain classical film themes have virtually disappeared altogether. the new women’s cycles tend to be more upbeat and have less invested in the notion of feminine suffering and anguish associated with classical female-orientated forms. Autumn in New York (Chen. have a broader box office appeal . For example. the presence of postmodernist devices – such as cinematic allusionism and textual self-reflexivity – within these cycles. As I will argue at greater length in later chapters. the contemporary subcycle which goes furthest towards exploring individual tales of raw misery is that of the female friendship film.The Early 1990s ‘Postmodernist’ Melodrama 67 as a ‘woman’s movie’ remains the presence of women combined with romance. The preoccupation with ‘persecution. such as Beaches and Steel Magnolias in the late 1980s and Stepmom (Columbus. Although forms such as costume drama and romantic comedy are perceived to have made a comeback. 1998). It is also not surprising that those cycles in which the presence of women and traditional feminine concerns are offset or complemented by either the strong presence of a male protagonist (the early 1990s melodrama). provides a framing structure that tends to offset the intensity of feeling associated with classical female-orientated forms. Similarly. in which the narrative exploration of pain and oppression is also ameliorated by the ‘consciousness raising’ structure of the text and its therapeutic emphasis on the solace of shared pain. but these more traditionally sentimental and somewhat mawkish productions have not developed into sustained cycles or attained the box office figures that turn a traditional ‘woman’s picture into a broader-based hit. As a general rule. 2001) in the late 1990s/early 2000s. illness and death’ that Doane perceives in classical women’s films is much less apparent in recent women’s cycles (Doane. on the whole. From the late 1980s there have been intermittent clusters of films in which women die prematurely.
6 The ‘postmodernist’ melodrama The remainder of this chapter will look closely at the first and most commercially successful of these new women’s cycles – the early 1990s melodrama – through a close analysis of three popular male directed ‘women’s’ texts from this period. ‘poaching’. The melodrama thus draws on a more traditional view of woman than later postmodernist female-orientated cycles (which tend to concern the conflict between female freedom. they combine the costume romance plot with lavish special effects and plenty of action. in this case. Costume drama and female friendship films rarely achieve this. ‘feminine’ ethic of cooperation and mutual support. Jerry Zucker’s Ghost. Conversely. are rejected in favour of an anti-materialist. The films are also indicative of the way in which the revived postmodernist women’s cycles were starting to reformulate conventional cinematic notions of femininity and classical dramatic situations. Unlike the other revived woman’s cycles – in which the ‘post-feminist’ idea of independent woman or singleton predominates. I want to stress . I have chosen to focus on this cycle (rather than the female friendship or ‘dying woman’ films) as these high-profile films demonstrate the way in which the revival of woman’s film was synonymous with a process of generic repacking. Before addressing these texts in more detail I want to highlight some generic and thematic features common to each and link these to more general postmodern theoretical concerns. unless. and the acquisition of cross-gender. Adrien Lynn’s Indecent Proposal and Joseph Ruban’s Sleeping with the Enemy (although Amy Jones wrote the screenplay for Indecent Proposal). As Peter Kramer comments of the cycle. the couple-centred melodrama blends an older notion of feminine virtue with the zeitgeist early 1990s ‘structure of feeling’ in which values coded as masculine – such as individualism. 1999: 100). creativity and ambition versus the social demand for heterosexual coupledom). like Titanic. ambition and plain greed.68 Postmodern Chick Flicks than those which focus exclusively on women. or in Altman’s terms. those linked to the history of stage and screen melodrama. and repackage them to new generation of female viewers. blockbuster elements. ‘the publicity surrounding such texts was distinguished by its continual references to the films’ endorsement of old-fashioned values and romantic themes’ (Kramer. The importance of this dynamic is indicated by the higher rating of the early 1990s melodrama and romantic comedy which feature in the top ten listings.
The new woman’s forms play it both ways. shot construction. fostering the ability to lose oneself. the biggest box office hit of the cycle – Ghost – blended gothic elements. Furthermore. The film’s final sequence. in which the . given the association between postmodernist forms and irony. much of the critical discussion of the form tends to miss its equally strong incorporation of generic elements associated with postmodernist aesthetic strategies. mise-en-scene and graphic depiction of violence stretched the suspense and psychological tension of its classical elements strongly in the direction of the popular slasher/stalker horror model. while much of the trade press views the cycle as bucking the trend towards ‘highconcept’ metageneric blockbusters (indicative of an audience desire for softer. human-centred drama after the peak of the action movie years). Thus. postmodern capitalism. while Sleeping with the Enemy was highly derivative of a classical female-orientated cycle – that of the ‘paranoid’ or gothic woman’s film – its use of score. Indeed. more detached response. it seems more likely that it was precisely the inclusion of some of these blockbuster elements within the new postmodernist female-orientated melodrama which led to its broader commercial success. Women’s melodrama is popularly understood as a form that works through a tonal register in which sincerity and emotion are privileged over the more cerebral pleasures of textual self-reflexivity. high-tech special effects and a fast-paced ‘masculine’ crime and action plot with its more traditional theme of love beyond the grave. If the early 1990s melodrama at some points utilises the full range of metalinguistic signals – such as the use of soft-focus and a stirring score – to prompt a heartfelt response. parody and fictional self-consciousness. whereas postmodernist forms are viewed as engendering a cooler. the cycle is thematically driven by the dramatisation of ethical problems relating to the socio-cultural order created by post-industrial. blending affect and irony while also integrating textual elements which offset the excess of feeling associated with female spectatorship. Female-orientated cycles have traditionally been associated with a lack of spectatorial distance. The notion of a ‘postmodernist’ melodrama might initially seem somewhat unlikely. the cycle re-invigorates and re-defines the female-orientated domestic melodrama through a blend of classical and post-classical generic tropes. it nonetheless draws on a range of textual features associated with postmodernist forms. In a similar manner. Working against what is popularly regarded as a traditionally feminine mode of audience engagement.The Early 1990s ‘Postmodernist’ Melodrama 69 that while this cycle is not as obviously self-conscious or saturated with prior cinematic allusion as subsequent female-orientated 1990s cycles (such as the romantic comedy).
melodrama stages moral and ethical issues through the ‘interiorisation and privatisation of what are essentially ideological conflicts’. is particularly close to the ‘final girl’ scenario (usually following the grisly death of all companions) that close many a post-1970s horror film. Indecent Proposal is the most consistently ‘feminine’ in its almost exclusive concern with the heterosexual couple. cross-generic elements are thus pulled together by a strong melodramatic logic and the equation of femininity and the films’ female protagonists with notions of innocence. camera angles and fast editing. Sleeping with the Enemy repeats – to invert in nightmarish form – the ‘Cinderella’ elements of Julia Roberts’s previous hit. The cycle depicts women as cultural saviours and redeemers. Indecent Proposal draws on Robert Redford’s status as both a fading Hollywood idol and his past screen depiction of another lonely rich guy – Jay Gatsby in Jack Clayton’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby (Clayton. The perceived return of women to the big screen following the demise of central female roles in the 1970s and 1980s and the assumed feminine appeal of these texts can be linked to two factors. The new domestic melodrama and its critique of postmodern society Despite its self-conscious address and inclusion of generic elements associated with the horror (Sleeping with the enemy) or the action film (Ghost). Aside from this blending of generic codes and forms. keeping male wickedness under check. Firstly. According to Thomas Elsaesser. Pretty Woman (Caputi. in popular film criticism the cycle was consistently lauded as heralding the return or revival of women’s genres. 1991: 3). justice. their strong melodramatic critique of 1980s greed and materialism. In all three texts. The narrative flow is also disrupted with sequences – such as the hotel love scene – which replicate the aesthetic style of a pop promo in lighting. Moreover.70 Postmodern Chick Flicks heroine does combat with the psychopathic male stalker. as Jane Caputi has argued. Of the three. the three films contain a marked degree of intertextual referencing. Similarly. 1974). For example. the way in which this critique is tied up with a revised and updated vision of woman as the sign of virtue. purity and feminine self-sacrifice. Secondly. yet there is a strong emphasis on style over substance and a late 1980s preoccupation with clothes and interiors. he states that ‘the popularity of melodrama coincides with periods of intense social and ideological . while the film’s overall plotline is a self-consciously intertextual ‘feminist’ reworking of the paranoid ‘my-husbands-trying-to-kill-me’ classical gothic woman’s film.
throughout much of the 1980s. Significantly. ‘backlash’ rhetoric sought to persuade women that feminism – rather . the ‘postmodernist’ inflection of other generic elements. The values which have come to symbolise the 1980s – the triumph of style over substance.The Early 1990s ‘Postmodernist’ Melodrama 71 crisis’ (Elsaesser. Indeed. designer suited. As I will illustrate in the analysis of each text. excitement and entrepreneurial spirit associated with the Western post-industrial financial boom and the increasingly negative connotations of greed and material excess which it began to accrue as the decade drew to a close. ethical concerns and its gendered articulation. Virtue is feminised in these texts (the films’ heroines affirm creativity and community). but that the sentimental feminine aspects of these texts are wholly bound up with their wider social vision and critique of latecapitalist economics. Both statements provide a useful way into the cycle’s thematic. conspicuous consumption. give its cultural critique a darker. French and Faludi argued that. In this sense the cycle’s postmodernist formal elements contribute to its liberal critique of postmodern capitalism and the presentation of women as social guardians and saviours. more forceful impact. This is not to suggest that the manifest content of such texts – that is. their ‘feminine’ concern with romance and heterosexual coupledom – is merely a means of making their underlying ideological message more palatable. the way in which the 1980s has subsequently come to be mythologised as the decade of the yuppie (embodied by Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas) and his ‘greed is good’ mantra in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street) (Stone. ‘yuppie’. 1995: 352). the appearance of the cycle also coincided with feminist debates concerning a perceived cultural and political anti-feminist ‘backlash’ generated by the high-profile publications of tracts such as Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War against Women (1992) or Marilyn French’s The War against Women (1992). government and the media co-orchestrated an ideological campaign which sought to undermine and invalidate feminist objectives by infringing on women’s right to abortion. 1987). while villainy is repeatedly embodied in the figure of the cleancut. such as the horror/thriller aspects of Ghost and Sleeping with the Enemy. Appearing at the tail-end of the 1980s. According to French and Faludi. the cycle’s tortuous sexual and emotional dynamics provide the privatised dramatic motivation for an exploration of the conflict between the energy. overshadowing and eventually devastating the lives of the central characters. owes much to the late 1980s proliferation of what might be called Hollywood’s ‘anti-Wall Street’ narratives. equal pay and other legislative issues. the single-minded pursuit of wealth and the self-regarding ‘me’ culture of the Reagan years – are imbued with an almost satanic power.
a relatively feminized victimhood has been identified with virtue and innocence. Indecent Proposal and the psychotic dark side of the husband in Sleeping with the Enemy are strongly associated with the male characters’ dangerous desire for worldly status and with their over-investment in the competitive. in a wider sense. the calamitous events which befall the couples in Ghost. independence and equality within this space is undertaken by the female protagonists. (Williams. The new melodrama’s representation of the female figure as protector of hearth and home and. Ghost. On the contrary. as the guardian of a more compassionate social order might initially suggest that the cycle incorporates aspects of this regressive social and political current. In Jerry Zucker’s Ghost.7 The cycle’s broadly liberal critique of postmodern capitalism is thus echoed by a feminist-influenced critique of ‘masculine’ values (particularly male aggression and worldly competitiveness) and an exploration of their negative impact on family life. this indictment of late 1980s . motherhood and domesticity were not traps to ensnare them but means of liberating women from the lonely. corrupt masculine sphere. in all three films.72 Postmodern Chick Flicks than patriarchy – was responsible for their continued dissatisfaction and that marriage. But as I will stress in my analysis of each film. while the texts place relationships and the domestic sphere at the centre of women’s lives. As this swiftly disintegrates and descends into domestic crisis. The cycle’s emphasis on domesticity and relationships is not one that encourages men to take up the role of provider. Indecent Proposal and Sleeping with the Enemy begin by offering a 1980s fantasy of affluence and material success that is closely associated with the worldly aspirations of the leading male figures. At least since Uncle Tom and Little Eva. stressful life of the career spinster. chasing money and status while women flourish in the domestic sphere. ‘feminine’ culture of caring and compassion. Femininity and cultural redemption in the 1990s melodrama Since the rise of American melodrama on the mid-nineteenth-century stage. a battle to achieve respect. order is restored through the rejection of what are clearly identified as the masculine values of ambition and competitiveness and the healing influence of a woman-led. the suffering victims of popular American stage and screen have been endowed with the most moral authority. 1998: 43) As I have already suggested.
who Sam enlists to protect Molly and avenge his death. Carl. authorising his friend’s murder in order to conceal his money laundering activities and connections to drug barons. While Sam’s murder is wrongly attributed to a lone street criminal rather than the outwardly respectable white banker. the low-life fake spiritualist turns out to have genuine psychic powers and a finely tuned awareness of corruption and social disadvantage. Yet both these events have further unexpected consequence as Sam returns in ghostly form and Lopaz is revealed to be in the pay of Sam’s treacherous friend and colleague. let alone a love story. spacious Manhattan apartment. If Sam Wheat (his name signifying his underlying wholesomeness) represents the more acceptable face of material aspiration.The Early 1990s ‘Postmodernist’ Melodrama 73 decadence is accentuated through the film’s Manichean moral logic and its postmodernist inclusion of gothic and supernatural elements more commonly associated with the horror genre. Ghost not only asks the audience to believe in the after-life. funniest lines and introduces a much-needed comic element which undercuts both the text’s intense gothic nastiness and sentimental . wrestle with the problem of dragging a vast and overbearing angel figure into their new. The moral universe which the film initially appears to endorse is further complicated by the introduction of African-American petty criminal. More predictably. If the text’s opening sequences concern a common woman’s theme. Ode Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg). a sculptress. The crude and somewhat ironic conflict between the spiritual and material world is signalled from the beginning of the text as Wall Street banker Sam Wheat (Patrick Swazey) and girlfriend Molly (Demi Moore). Ode Mae also gets the sharpest. that of Sam’s masculine inability to express his feelings and fully commit to Molly. Ode Mae is also desexualised to the point where Sam can ‘inhabit’ her body in order to maintain physical contact with Molly without any suggestion of sexual exploitation or lesbian eroticism. Puerto Rican criminal – appears initially to pander to the worst racial stereotypes and bourgeois fears. Carl Bruner (Sam Goldwyn). the representation of killer Willy Lopaz (Rick Aviles) – a poor. Nevertheless. the plot quickly takes the unusual step of killing off the male protagonist in what initially appears a random street-robbery. Unusual for a contemporary mainstream text. Carl is pure yuppie villainy. The depiction of Ode Mae has also been subject to much negative criticism due to its comic portrayal of ‘folksy’ blackness and her marginal plot function in assisting an affluent white couple. but goes so far as to include the chilling image of cackling devils dragging the dying villain down below while a celestial cloud of white lights finally redeems the hero from purgatory.
In a similar manner. rather than extension of. in post-1970s American texts new communications technologies metonymically evoke the sinister and mysterious nature of post-Fordist global economics through their association with political conspiracy. the film’s postmodernist generic elements are entwined with its melodramatic feminine critique of social injustice and patriarchal power. metageneric integration of the gothic crime plot brings together issues of public and private morality that strengthen the feminine. bringing together both the feminine melodramatic and postmodernist aspects of the text. as Sam is entirely dependent on Ode Mae to uncover the crime plot and protect Molly. emotion-driven aspects of the text. Again. Sam’s escape from purgatory involves confronting both his own ‘feminine’ emotional vulnerability and the dark side of this hyper-masculine world along with the concrete social inequalities it creates. fake bank accounts and the rapid and terrifying appearance and disappearance of vast sums. Villain Carl Bruner’s well-deserved descent into near madness following the instantaneous deletion of millions touches on an increasing cultural fear of economic meltdown as global finance moves into the abstract realm of e-commerce. gothic elements of the plot are not set against the high-tech electronic world of global finance but used to emphasise its ghostly but omnipotent power. Sam’s final transformation from unreconstructed masculinity to emotionally expressive ‘new mandom’ is achieved not only through his embrace of the feminine values dually represented by Molly and Ode Mae. Although clearly coded as comic rather than sexually attractive. conventional racial and gendered power roles. but is also reinforced through his rejection of the aggressive and brutal world of Wall Street revealed through the crime/action plot. insipid Molly who spends much of the film in tears and. repressive white male is finally able to acknowledge and express his feelings for Molly. it might be viewed as a reversal. Ghost emphasises the silent power of ‘voodoo’ economics through electronic money laundering. . It is literally ‘through’ Ode Mae that the stuffy. 1995). As Jameson argues in The Geo-Political Aesthetic (Jameson.74 Postmodern Chick Flicks excess. energy and life-enhancing power. does not even warrant a surname. Indeed. she is also a far more powerful figure than the pale. unlike all the other characters. one of the more unusual aspects of the text is the way in which the supernatural. The postmodernist. Indeed. The film employs both conventional notions of black and white (devils and angels) and a reverse pattern in which ‘whiteness’ is associated with death and decay – through Sam and the vampirical subway ghost – and blackness with warmth.
the Brooklyn petty criminal. Molly is in need of protection. 1987: 55. the new melodrama also works to encompass and absorb rather than oppose contemporary. feministinfluenced conceptions of social and sexual morality. postmodern socio-cultural context. cinematic representations of this sort were not in short supply during this period with the revival of the femme fatale in 1980s neo-noir (Creed. from the outset. Pidduck. melodrama survives through the redefinition rather than rigid reassertion of moral and ethical positions linked to gender and class roles. It is the presence of both the more traditional (if rather implausible) good woman alongside her street-smart sister that allows the film to redefine and update the notion of feminine goodness and its redemptive power in a contemporary. 1995). But what is also striking is the way in which Ode Mae. The depiction of Molly is very much in the sentimental mould of feminine victimhood and virtue typical of the melodrama. As this film illustrates. Along with its contemporary critique of financial corruption and postmodern social inequalities (heightened by its postmodernist engagement with new generic codes). The cultural recirculation of femininity defined largely in terms of virtue also implies the existence of its shadow side. As many feminist critics have noted. depicted as a civilising force for Sam. At first sight. the more obviously misogynistic fantasy of the scheming female villain. is also presented as a virtuous woman despite her brash manner and uncompromising behaviour. updated version in which moral fibre is aligned with the ability to act courageously in the ‘masculine’ sphere represented by Ode Mae. Molly is. is utterly duped by Carl and refuses to press charges against Ode Mae even when she (wrongly) believes her to be a charlatan exploiting her bereavement. this resurgence of femininity defined by a rather limited notion of virtue would appear to correspond with the ideological and political re-articulation of conventional gender roles proposed by Faludi and French during this period. embodying the traditionally esteemed feminine virtues of innocence and loyalty.The Early 1990s ‘Postmodernist’ Melodrama 75 The text’s postmodernist play with race and power binaries is also echoed through its treatment of femininity and redemption. Prostitution and women’s melodrama Elsaesser’s proposal that in melodrama ideological conflict often exists ‘together with the metaphorical interpretation of class conflict as sexual . Its dual representation of the virtuous woman thus combines the traditional conception of feminine sweetness and vulnerability with a more assertive.
76 Postmodern Chick Flicks exploitation and rape’ (Elsaesser. David’s ambitions are not. Situating the text within the cycle’s more general preoccupation with the negative social effects of Reaganite right-wing economics. A desperate trip to Las Vegas in which the couple attempt to win back their lost savings precipitates wife Diana’s encounter with rapacious Casino owner. In this sense. jokey slogan. However. as in Ghost. John Gates. Indecent Proposal contains many of the metalinguistic. initially in conflict with the stability of the couple but attuned to their mutual needs. the husband’s career assumes primacy. power and morality. In 1993. also starring Demi Moore. non-verbal signals associated with women’s films – such as tinkling piano music in the opening scene – as in other postmodernist melodramas. but. as in the other texts in the cycle. This was in marked contrast with much of the wider media attention attracted by the film that tended to focus on its female-orientated moral dilemma of whether a million dollars was a worthwhile trade off for extra-marital sex with a stranger. Both work. Nevertheless. ‘when the price is right they come down’. affluent. unlike in Ghost and Sleeping with the Enemy. David does not work in the financial sector but is an aspiring architect whose chief goal is to build an impressive home for his family. paternal figure – which is strongly linked to its critique of 1980s materialism. middle-class professional . the plot centres on a young. The battle between ‘masculine’ materialism and ‘feminine’ ethics develops as the couple fall victim to the 1990s recession and David is corrupted by his desire for worldly status through competition with a decadent. and the gradual disintegration of their marriage. older billionaire. the characteristically nineteenth-century melodramatic concern with innocence corrupted is thus re-articulated here through the conflict between the values of the impoverished. it did bluntly convey the film’s concern with prostitution and women as objects of exchange between men. but considerable weight is given to the perspective of the male characters and the film contains an ‘oedipal’ power struggle – between a younger man and a powerful. attractive white couple. Like Ghost. but respectable. 1995: 352) is also useful in thinking through the gender and class conflicts staged within these texts and the symbolic significance of prostitution in these early 1990s fables of wealth. The advert managed to offend large sections of the public and was eventually withdrawn from circulation by the Advertising Standards Association. Sky movies ran a large billboard advertising campaign for the British television premiere of Indecent Proposal: a waist to thigh shot of a woman wearing only her knickers with the vulgar.
Abandoned by Diana. in which David’s reconciliation with Diana is precipitated by his donation to her favourite charity. he’s just got more money’. Indecent Proposal’s broadly oedipal structure leads to the young hero’s eventual triumph over the corrupt paternal figure. The ‘softening’ of the melodramatic villain in Indecent Proposal – as opposed to the demonisation of this figure in the horror/gothic influenced melodramas – is linked to the film’s blend of romance with soft porn and pop promo textual styles and its more depersonalised representation of social inequality as abstract. the audience is continually asked to sympathise with him. Although Gates’s self-pity is never transformed into showing compassion for others or acknowledging his own culpability in perpetuating the hard-faced values of the market. Gates’s role is drenched in pathos. David undergoes a period of humiliation (drinking.The Early 1990s ‘Postmodernist’ Melodrama 77 and the shady dealings of vulgar 1980s yuppies. selfless value system symbolised by his charitable donation. The textual endorsement of this view is confirmed in one of the final scenes. In this respect the postmodernist . respect for women and rejecting the masculine values of material achievement represented by Gates. This inclusion of other generic styles and codes specifically links sexual and material corruption (such as the MTV-style depiction of the couple rolling around on a bed of Casino won money) and reinforces its theme of corrupted innocence. Despite his association with the tacky Las Vegas Casino. his disaffection with the tawdry world of late 1980s decadence becoming increasingly apparent. Laura Mulvey’s description of the tragic or ‘male’ melodrama in which the hero is brought to his knees and finally redeemed and rehabilitated (Mulvey. David regains Diana’s love when he realises that Gates is. Yet the depiction of Gates – the corrupting influence – is a far cry from the ‘pantomime’ depiction of the evil yuppie villain figure of Ghost and Sleeping with the Enemy. the narrative flow is disrupted by the postmodernist inclusion of a lengthy scene reminiscent of both soft porn and the pop video promo. As I suggested earlier. systematic and damaging even to those who benefit from it. David does not win Diana through a conventional show of male power but through a rejection of competitiveness (strongly coded here as masculine) and the embrace of a more compassionate. Taking the text’s crude opposition between worthy professionals and parasitic money-men to its conclusion. 1977) applies to the young architect rather than ‘sugar daddy’ Gates. living in squalor) before finding redemption through his acceptance of a humble teaching post and a rediscovered love of architectural beauty. as he states ‘not the better man. It is David who undergoes the film’s central process of learning integrity.
1991). These aspects of the text would seem to confirm the early 1990s popular feminist view of a Hollywood-endorsed ‘backlash’ against women’s rights. loveless existence. it concurs with Creed’s objections to the nostalgia mode and the way in which revived classical genres can drag restrictive gender stereotypes in their wake. Forgiven by all. Diana values hearth. it is made clear that Diana’s attraction to Gates is based on her desire to ‘heal’ his emotional wounds rather than an attraction to his wealth and status. home and ‘creative’ achievements (such as David’s plans to build an impressive family house) while her husband is sucked into material competitiveness and incensed by his inability to compete with the big boys. while the corrupt Gates is condemned to a lonely. Thematically. Out-and-out villains such as Carl Bruner are destroyed. Like Ghost. but to please her husband. articulated through a nostalgic and regressive celebration of feminine domesticity and self-sacrifice. Only the relatively innocuous David is allowed to regain his place in society after a period of abject humiliation. Redefining the concept of feminine virtue beyond its traditional sexual connotations. This is indicated both thematically and sartorially. anti-social masculine ambition. she remains the film’s centre of moral authority even after abandoning her husband and moving in with Gates. but the male melodrama’s predominantly male viewpoint was linked to selfsalvation rather than a gendered critique of male-coded values. Yet it is also significant that Diana’s separation from David initiates a period of financial autonomy and career aspiration that is also endorsed by the narrative. Furthermore. even when it is made clear that she enjoyed the encounter rather than merely enduring it in a spirit of wifely duty and self-sacrifice. The latter films were also critical of a historically specific notion of unbridled. As in Ghost. David’s journey of self-realisation leads him to accept the values espoused by his wife from the beginning.78 Postmodern Chick Flicks woman’s melodrama is much tougher on male greed and selfishness than early 1990s male melodramas such as The Doctor (Haines. the scenes in which Diana . tensions between class identification and ideological positions are refracted through what are clearly presented as gendered patterns of behaviour and value systems. More significantly. but even the redeemed Sam Wheat cannot avoid death. the wounded male regains his place in society and can look forward to a more fulfilling future. In the woman’s melodrama the redemption is symbolic and cultural rather than individual. 1991) or Regarding Henry (Nichols. Similarly. the film does not blame or punish Diana for sleeping with Gates. Diana is willing to sleep with Gates not for her own material benefit. Swathed head to toe in white clothing.
Once the deal is accepted. it also suggests a degree of elasticity in the way this is combined with contemporary social attitudes towards sexual morality and female economic independence. what is culturally perceived as a feminine perspective on relationships and cultural value systems. in broader terms. This ability to mesh feminist attitudes towards ‘personal’ morality with older female identified values in the cycle of ‘postmodernist’ melodrama is particularly apparent in Joseph Ruben’s reworked female paranoia movie: Sleeping with the Enemy. The film’s nostalgic association of woman and virtue is thus updated through an appreciation of female moral integrity that is not wholly tied to sexual behaviour. Diana’s moral superiority is associated with her attempt to counter David and Gates’s masculine competitiveness with emotional honesty. the couple’s plans for their Edenic dream-home (snatched by Gates) are shattered and their failing relationship is beset by jealously and mistrust. The depiction of the female protagonist illustrates the continuing power of the figure of ‘woman’ through Diana’s role as saviour of David’s integrity (David rejects competitiveness and materialism in order to regain Diana’s love and respect) and as a symbol of the cultural desire for social justice and opposition to class exploitation through her resistance to Gates’s attempts to buy her. However its feminist-influenced treatment of this theme also ensures that as David prostituted his wife – then had the gall to treat her like an adulteress – it is he who is condemned and punished throughout the remainder of the film. In the postmodernist melodrama.The Early 1990s ‘Postmodernist’ Melodrama 79 accompanies Gates visually reinforce her moral purity. a similarly redefined . The film’s continuing endorsement of Diana’s virtue indicates the degree to which the new melodrama repositions its surface preoccupation with sexual morality onto its overriding concern with wider ethical and social issues. In this text. The early 1990s melodrama thus provides an identifiable template for addressing class conflicts and points of ideological tension via gender representation. do battle with – and triumph over – the masculine sphere of worldly competitiveness and 1980s materialism. However. values which are presented as feminine such as cooperation and the desire to care for and nurture others. The nice young couple’s acceptance of the million-dollar proposal is a clear metaphor for the corruption of traditional family values by nasty 1980s materialism. The smooth integration of feministinspired notions of female independence and sexual and financial autonomy within the ‘postmodernist’ melodrama owes much to the domestic melodrama’s long standing association with the female audience and.
Using this logic. arguing that the brutal. focusing on the way in which the former develops and explores some of the more troubling aspects of the latter’s underlying gender/power dynamic.e. controlling behaviour displayed by the murderous husband in Sleeping with the Enemy is nothing more than the flip side of the ‘masterful’ romantic hero as depicted by Richard Gere in the blockbuster romantic comedy. Caputi argues that Sleeping with the Enemy constitutes a kind of feminist corrective to Garry Marshall’s popular romantic comedy Pretty Woman (1990). Caputi draws out some interesting visual and thematic parallels between the two films. Although superficially distinct in genre. subject. nightmare representation of the same theme (Caputi. In many cases films do not even need to be led by a female figure to be culturally assigned as ‘chick flicks’. Jane Caputi puts forward the view that every light. ‘sentimental’ Hollywood representation of romance or family life spawns a dark. . (Caputi. 1991: 7) The status of such films as in some way representative of ‘individual’ female fantasies cannot be easily established. its critique of patriarchal power is also closely tied to historically and culturally specific attitudes concerning the conflict between the cold. However. they also have a wider cross-gender appeal and are mediated through the industrial structure of male-dominated Hollywood.80 Postmodern Chick Flicks melodramatic triangle of bad man/good man/virtuous heroine carries the story but the film is both more obviously derivative of its classical female-orientated predecessors and more closely inspired by the legacy of the women’s movement (hence the title’s adoption of a feminist slogan). hard. and tone. 1991: 4). world of business and the traditional family and community values represented by women. In her analysis of Sleeping with the Enemy. the production process and the heterogeneous female audience is extremely complex. the co-mingled fear and love that women feel for men in a culture that aggrandises men and devalues women – and shapes these into either utopian fantasy or high paranoia nightmare. those led by a female figure and which privilege emotional dynamics). Although such texts do appear to attract a higher proportion of female viewer. This is not to suggest that such texts are merely male conceived versions of what appeals to women. each takes the same material – the socially constructed power differential between women and men. Pretty Woman. but that the relation between what are widely assumed to be ‘female fantasies’ (i. Thus while Ghost and Indecent Proposal feature men in strong leading roles. like Ghost and Indecent Proposal. Caputi asserts: Both films represent collective female fantasies.
feminist attitude towards gender/power relations than Ghost or Indecent Proposal. the cycle of classical women’s film that it references is that strongly influenced by gothic/horror genre – the women’s paranoia film. such texts assume a particular cultural significance as women’s texts and can – as in the case of Pretty Woman – become the focus of much popular discussion of women’s desires and aspirations. 1944). anti-patriarchal stance. 1999: 101). The genre is itself highly derivative of the gothic – a well plundered form that has a long established cultural association with female viewers . 1941). there is little doubt that the cultural fantasies offered within these texts rely on the persistence of certain gender-specific themes – such as prostitution as a metaphor for class exploitation – or the way in which women are situated as the moral saviours of both individual men and. Sleeping with the Enemy’s references to both the classical woman’s paranoia film and Pretty Woman provide another mediating framework. this constitutes a subgenre of the 1940s women’s film comprising texts such as Suspicion (Hitchcock. The film also takes a more overtly critical. But if the status of such texts as the exclusive property of the female audience is problematic. 1993: 60). Identified by Mary Ann Doane. The Two Mrs Carrolls (Godfrey. family or lover’ (Doane. postmodern culture. 1948). hard ‘yuppie’ culture of the late 1980s. Rebecca (Hitchcock. For this reason. The many reference points between the two films suggest an intertextual play in which the latter encourages audiences familiar with the former to reinterpret its view of heterosexual romance in a more critical light. 1940) and Gaslight (Cukor. The Secret Beyond the Door (Lang. What is clear is that popular discussion of such texts did tend to strongly focus on their status as collective feminine fantasy: a tendency which was particularly marked in the case of Pretty Woman’s Cinderella plotline (Radner. Pretty Woman’s vast popularity adds significance to the uncanny similarities and points of reference between Pretty Woman and Sleeping with the Enemy. Perhaps because of its tougher. A key feature of the new or postmodernist melodrama is that feminine warmth and compassion does battle with the cold. in a symbolic sense. In Sleeping with the Enemy the conflict between these gendered spheres is drawn in particularly stark terms.The Early 1990s ‘Postmodernist’ Melodrama 81 the overall tone and subject matter was enough to guarantee that they were still regarded as female-orientated texts by the trade and review press (Kramer. the factor linking these earlier films is their assumption of ‘a compatibility between the idea of female fantasy and that of persecution – a persecution effected by the husband. post-industrial. 1987: 36). According to Doane. 1947).
In Freudian psychoanalysis the ‘problem’ of seeing is essentially structured by the castration complex. a deflection of scopophiliac energy in other directions. In The Desire to Desire she argues that in films structured by the visual. The very process of seeing is now invested with fear. and the secondary implication that women are also held hostage by their own heterosexual allegiance to patriarchy. Feminist cine-psychoanalysis has therefore asserted that the problem of vision is not only tied to the female image. The anxiety attached to the female image is that deriving from the unconscious trauma of the sight of the female genitals. To consider both of these possibilities it is also useful to refer back to the more general problem of the woman’s point of view within the specular regime of popular cinema and the figure of the persecuting male and its historic construction within a feminised gothic/horror tradition. away from the female body. However. cognitive and emotional perceptions of the heroine (such as the women’s paranoia movie). 1987: 129) . The film’s title might also be construed as typically ‘postfeminist’ in that it utilises a radical. 1982: 59–84). The peculiar resonance of the gothic with female audiences tends to be attributed by critics such as Doane and Modleski to the form’s ability to explore male villainy from a female or even proto-feminist perspective. She states: A certain de-specularisation takes place in these films. but is also primarily a problem of and for the male psyche. precisely because it is objectless. the anxiety and horror which is normally mapped (and thus contained) within the space of the female image is simply displaced onto other. horror. this then presents the problem of how to account for the construction of the female ‘look’ in female-orientated genres and the question of what happens to the visual organisation of the film when it is structured by the gaze of the female protagonist. second-wave feminist slogan – referring to the oppression of all women by all men – and depoliticises this in application to a story of one particularly mad.82 Postmodern Chick Flicks (Modleski. Can this circumvent the masculinisation of the viewing position? In her 1980s analysis of the woman’s paranoia films of the 1940s Mary Ann Doane answered this question with a definitive no. anxiety. which popular cinema spends much of its time attempting to assuage. free-floating. ambivalently carries both overtly feminist and more conventionally gothic associations. more threatening spaces. bad villain victimising a singularly virtuous and innocent heroine. The title of the film in question (Sleeping with the Enemy) with its sinister suggestion of the fundamental untrustworthiness of all men. (Doane.
But what is also striking in the films she cites is how frequently the heroine’s paranoic fears are eventually narratively substantiated one way or another. Modleski interprets its presence in romantic literature as the inscription of a proto-feminist consciousness. it characterises much popular romantic literature. persecuting male also looms large. This secondary aspect of the gothic is more clearly brought into view in the contemporary reworking of the genre. ‘masculine’ space of her minimalist yuppie home.The Early 1990s ‘Postmodernist’ Melodrama 83 In the woman’s paranoia film. awarding them an underlying kernel of truth. in which the figure of the punishing. even within texts targeted at and centred on women. paranoia is not only a dominant structuring device within the woman’s film. Moreover. much of this anxiety is remapped onto the film’s domestic topography that then becomes symbolic of the marriage and more specifically. dark. moustached. the gothic ultimately works to validate such fears. and therefore attempts to transform male bad behaviour from a grim reality into pleasurable fantasy (he only hurts me because he loves me). unknowable figure of the husband himself. however distorted this appears through the emotional dynamics of that form. turn out to be paranoic delusions. after all. the enigmatic. In the opening sequence of Sleeping with the Enemy the domestic sphere is once more cast as the site of female dread and repression. in classic paranoid woman’s films – such as Hitchcock’s Rebecca – the enigmatic husband really did murder his wife. In her analysis of romance fiction Tania Modleski suggests that this figure serves two important functions for the female imaginary. In Doane’s analysis there is no space within Hollywood production for an empowering female-led or orientated film. Again we are confronted by the tall. While the heroine is encouraged to dismiss her feelings of suspicion and mistrust by those around her and by her own lack of confidence. Heroine Laura Burney (Julia Roberts) is virtually imprisoned in the clinical. The female look is therefore shot through with anxiety/ instability becoming an unreliable source of narrative coherence. The heroine’s anxieties are also compounded and intensified by her suspicion that these may. recast as the persecution of the innocent women (it is permissible to hate men because. It firstly eroticises. and/or it provides a guilt-free receptacle/projection for female rage. 1982: 61). villain in the figure of her . Marital relations are thus characterised by fear and mistrust in such films. they really are murderous villains) (Modleski. After all. The important distinction between these well-known feminist approaches is that while Doane reads the filmic construction of female paranoia as wholly determined by the intrinsically masculine structure of the cinematic apparatus. in actual fact.
Sleeping with the Enemy opens with the moment that forms the denouement of the classical paranoid woman’s film: the revelation of the husband’s true motives and identity. the film nonetheless contains strong feminist elements which are accentuated through its association with a wellknown classical form and the shocking revelation of what was concealed or absent within its classical predecessor. the narrative trajectory follows a more . in a postmodernist reversal of the idea of the stereotypical. In contrast. but. The nameless fears of the heroine are finally articulated and the romantic hero demystified. if not repulsive. The nameless fears and anxieties of the paranoid heroine are immediately narratively justified and given a specific focus.84 Postmodern Chick Flicks husband Martin (Patrick Bergin). In this sense. neurotic housewife. mercurial husband in the light of feminism’s exposure and critique of marital violence and abuse. Nostalgia and the revised paranoid women’s film But if the text’s view of gender roles is anything but nostalgic. its familiar critique of the designer label conscious. but enigmatic. husband in the less flattering role of a commonplace wife-beater. not only through his sporadic outbursts of violence. and thus perpetuation of our suspicions. in a more recent film such as What Lies Beneath (Zemeckis. Martin is ‘revealed’ almost immediately through the graphic depiction of domestic violence and psychological bullying. Sleeping with the Enemy thus invites the audience to reinterpret the romance dynamic of shy. The exposure of such violence swiftly recasts the sinister. The presence of Julia Roberts – a star famous for girl-next-door niceness rather than glamour or action roles – helps to engage the audience’s sympathy and reinforce its critique of patriarchal power. suspicious bride and wealthy. a generically derivative female-led blockbuster such as Sleeping with the Enemy provides an interesting counterpoint to the theoretical concern with conservative rétro genres. Following the suspense/ thriller aspect of Laura’s escape. through his obsessive attention to domestic order. While the paranoid woman’s film demanded the concealment of violence. 2000) – he is no longer at the centre of a compensatory or masochistic ‘female’ fantasy – he becomes wholly resistible. urbane male is aligned with a highly nostalgic view of small-town America. A much hyped star-led text with strong thriller/horror elements. However. for example. it is the villain/husband himself who is pathologised. The recurring presence of this familiar figure suggests that while the villainous husband remains a prominent figure within the fantasies which are culturally coded as feminine.
satirical treatments of the theme in films such as Blue Velvet (Lynch. domestic drudgery. reinforced by the heroine’s choice of rambling family home and transition from glamorous trophy wife to a homebody in floral dress. away from the urban corruption associated with the murderous husband.The Early 1990s ‘Postmodernist’ Melodrama 85 conventionally feminist quest towards the discovery and recognition of selfhood. small-town. while two questions hover in the background: will she escape the evil husband and will she form another relationship? What is striking here is the location chosen for Laura’s new life. appears to satirise not the actual 1950s. The early 1990s context of ‘anti-wall street’ narratives provides the cultural and moral imperative for an alternative view of small-town living. with the inevitable patriotic flagpole. gives us a Back to the Future (Zemeckis. as in the recent film Pleasantville (Ross. 1986). and the discursive construction of the suburban housewife that drove women to organised rebellion – this version of fiftiesness prevails in later female-orientated films which are either overtly or covertly about the period. The whole scene seems designed to evoke the strongest sense of ‘coming home’ to a secure and comfortable base. Sleeping with the Enemy’s celebration of the small-town echoes the evocative use of what Jameson describes as ‘fiftiesness’ in postmodernist cinema of the 1980s. Iowa. Despite its early 1990s setting (and concern with culturally specific ethical and moral issues). as a period in which patriarchal. seems an unlikely spot for a newly liberated heroine. together with sunny suburban streets and angelic children. The text’s initial feminist thrust appears to be countered by a backlash celebration of small-town homeliness. 1998). According to Jameson. racist. small-minded attitudes dominated the political and cultural agenda. either a moment of innocence prior to corruption or. 1993: 287). or additionally. Central to the mythology of fiftiesness is its temporal relation to ‘permissiveness’ and the counter-cultural movements that succeeded it. as in Blue Velvet. from the Greyhound bus on which Laura escapes. In the broader context of popular cinema. special effectsdriven blockbusters such as Back to the Future or more self-conscious. fiftiesness connotes two affective responses – that of comfort and security and/or boredom and frustration. The American 1950s thus tends to be constructed in polarised terms. such as Far from Heaven or The Stepford Wives remake which I address in the final chapter. For feminism it generally carries pejorative associations with sexual repression. Our first view. but the cultural fantasies woven around the decade (Jameson. Sleeping . For Jameson the more interrogative use of fiftiesness is one which sets up an allegorical encounter between past and present. 1985) mainstreet and central square. Senta Falls. The use of fiftiesness within postmodernist cinema can be identified in both high-tech.
In a more general sense. In Sleeping with the Enemy the nostalgic representation of the small town is not only associated with the heroine’s emancipation from her punishing. Similarly. abandon the desire of and for her mother. it can also be understood as a manifestation of more deep-rooted gendered conflicts. paternalistic husband but is also close to her mother’s home. as a place of retreat not only from the career ladder or worldly ambition. Laura’s desire to live without men – which is violently intruded upon by the return of the psychotic husband. openly playing with and enjoying gender ambiguity. The de-gendered pre-oedipal is suggested here through the degree of gender ambiguity which enters the text in some of the Senta Falls scenes. The ‘pathologisation’ of the feminine position which is identified within the subgenre of the woman’s paranoia film – from which this text clearly derives – may be linked here not to castration (a masculine structure of looking). Laura’s return to the small town associates Senta Falls with childhood.e. in a wider sense. and less forcefully but nonetheless insistently by the arrival of the ‘new-mannish’ boy-next-door Ben (Kevin Anderson) – can be interpreted as both the acknowledgement of a progressive feminist demand (for independence) and a retreat from the restrictions of heterosexual gender identification. if she is to enter into desire for the father. but rather. 1993: 20) . To a backtrack of Van Morrison’s ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’ she takes clear pleasure in trying on and discarding a series of male and female costumes. conventionally ‘girlish’ mode of dress. (Irigary.8 One interpretation of this nostalgia for community and an unspoilt small-town paradise is that it works to reconstitute fantasies of the domestic and the community through feminism. This can then be understood through a rather different psychoanalytic paradigm. but from male violence and. the film’s only upbeat scene is one in which new boyfriend Ben (a drama teacher) invites Laura to plunder the school wardrobe. patriarchal values. While Laura generally adopts a more fluid. to a feminine registering of the traumatic imposition of a masculine sexual economy. for as Luce Irigary argues: When analytic theory claims that woman must give up her love for and of the mother. woman is thereby subjected to a normative heterosexuality which is nonetheless completely pathogenic and pathological. the maternal and the desire to return a preoedipal moment.86 Postmodern Chick Flicks with the Enemy also evokes fiftiesness by contrasting the heroine’s isolated designer home with a utopian vision of community. Additionally. i. she also sports a masculine disguise – complete with false moustache – when visiting her mother.
where he assumes the typically masculine position of sadistic visual mastery. Laura runs wildly about the house. For example. operates through the classic mechanisms of domestic topography and visual instability identified by Doane. but perhaps more subversively. the instability of compulsory heterosexuality itself. There is no final rejection of the heterosexualising norm. In the ‘classic’ woman’s paranoia film. as the masochistic desire for the punitive father/husband. in the final scene. ‘feminised’ profession – but also manifested through the relay of looks between the husband.e. Sleeping with the Enemy highlights not the instability of the female look. Reinforcing Martin’s role as updated melodramatic villain. The mise-en-scene therefore constructs the terms by which the problematic articulation of heterosexual romance can be resolved in the text as a whole. . The camera then closes in on the discarded ring. The last sequence. that is. which frames the background view of the lover and heroine’s embrace. it is also important to consider how far the cultural registration of this fantasy is mediated through the context of what Doane describes as ‘male phallocratic discursive mechanisms’.The Early 1990s ‘Postmodernist’ Melodrama 87 If the project of much post-Freudian. i. through the scopic regime of classical narrative (Doane. 1987: 290). What this amounts to is a fairly straightforward alignment of Laura as the object of Martin’s gaze while Ben is the object of Laura’s. female desire (as structured through the perception of the female protagonist) is mobilised at the level of the ‘positive’ female oedipus. Yet. more compassionate Ben does at least go some way towards recognising the possibility of a rather different kind of male object choice. If the look of the female protagonist is situated as unreliable here. In contrast. the heroine and the lover. Laura’s first view of Ben is one in which she spies on him through the window. but Laura’s eventual acceptance of the gentle. This is articulated thematically – Ben works in a caring. the latter is typical of the horror/suspense shot where the female victim is tracked by the hidden assailant. In the closing shots. it is in respect to the bad man only. By rejecting this scenario and privileging the instability of gender identity and the pre-oedipal desire for the mother. the camera reflecting her panic and fear. Martin views Laura while she is unaware of his presence. the excessive violence of her revenge – shooting him four times at close range – more than compensates for his earlier attacks. in which Martin’s repossession of the domestic is signified by the stacked kitchen shelves and the orderly towels. the dying husband reaches towards her abandoned wedding ring. from the opening shot on the beach to his first view of Laura since her escape. feminist cine-psychoanalysis is to resituate maternal identification as the key structure of female fantasies.
callous world of 1980s greed and material aspiration. It is particularly significant that the destabilisation of gender identity articulated in some of the film’s later scenes works not to deconstruct its feminist message or positive view of mother–daughter relations. male/female. In a similar manner. linking an anti-essentialist postmodernist feminism to an older preoccupation with female solidarity and the importance of mother–daughter identification. Sleeping with the Enemy blends aspects of the nostalgia film and the classical woman’s film in ways that critically reflect on both. Laura is able to reclaim her relationship with her mother and experiment with her gender identity. what might be regarded as a regressive and nostalgic desire for an earlier cultural epoch. . The mother/daughter relationship provides the model for subsequent heterosexual relations – that of closeness and mutuality as opposed to the emotional dynamics of the female paranoia model. but develops in conjunction with these aspects of the film. estrangement and the imposition of the paternal law (as signified by the persecuting husband figure) are the crucial determinants of normative. heterosexual relations are finally reconstituted. adult relationships. Thus. Melodrama. The film thus clearly rejects patriarchal marriage in favour of a more casual and equally balanced relationship. So despite a clear rejection of the classical woman as helpless.88 Postmodern Chick Flicks If the fictional representation of marriage is still – as in Doane’s account of the paranoid woman’s film – ‘haunted by murder’. here manifested in the idealised representation of small-town America. in which difference. perhaps in a manner more acceptable to contemporary audiences. the film’s inclusion of Laura’s life outside marriage – albeit pursued by her husband – offers the possibility of an independent existence beyond the miserable marriage. The heterosexual imperative is reaffirmed through the heroine’s final union with Ben. self-punishing victim. 1987: 123). but the traumatic disruption of mother/daughter identification is somewhat compensated for in the figure of the caring ‘newmannish’ lover. is hijacked and transformed into a place of female retreat and independence from both men and the aggressive. a possibility which is rarely acknowledged within the paranoid woman’s film. men and the cultural power of femaleorientated narratives The early 1990s postmodernist melodrama provides a useful generic focus for reconsidering the question of whether and how feminist criticism should give particular attention to female-oriented filmic forms. (Doane. outside the confines of her marriage.
their treatment of the female figure is clearly significant as a focus of early 1990s cultural fears and fantasies about women. In contrast. psychotic husband figure in Sleeping with the Enemy – is also presented the least sympathetically. given both the dismissive and negative response of some critics. the inability to express vulnerability and. As texts constructed with women in mind. 1991: 376). In Ghost and Indecent Proposal the melodramatic function of women as symbols of justice and as cultural saviours is re-inflected with post-feminist attitudes towards female independence and sexual morality. In a similar manner. in a wider sense. Ghost and Indecent Proposal situate narratives that are heavily focused on moral and ethical questions .The Early 1990s ‘Postmodernist’ Melodrama 89 Brunsdon’s warning to avoid either pathologising or feeling the need to defend such texts on ground of their gendered appeal is also useful here. The representation of the male figures is also shaped by shifting attitudes towards what constitutes a ‘good’ man that are also strongly informed by feminist attitudes. the degree to which such figures also carry atavistic meanings alongside their function as representatives of contemporary cultural perceptions of gender roles and the everyday experience of real women in the 1990s. 1995: 37). twinned with the industry’s desire to promote its new found enthusiasm for the female audience (Brunsdon. the postmodernist melodrama lays the blame for male misery squarely on male egotism. Yet the symbolic function of these figures – their place within the strong melodramatic morality tale pattern of these texts – also indicates the wider cultural power of what are perceived as women-orientated narratives. Sleeping with the Enemy’s Laura Burney takes on both patriarchy and – in a symbolic sense – the dark side of 1980s consumer capitalism embodied in the figure of her villainous husband. while the strong and silent mode of masculinity is replaced by an emphasis on emotional literacy and the ability to respect. Significantly. As Fred Pfeil has argued. associating women’s increased independence with male loss of pride or self-esteem (Pfeil. The pain and trauma undergone by male characters is foregrounded. texts concerned with a perceived crisis in contemporary masculine psychology are often either implicitly or explicitly antifeminist. the male figure who is both the most obviously domineering and encapsulates the greatest sense of masculine crisis – the scary. the harsh values associated with the patriarchal business or financial sector. The cycle articulates early 1990s cultural anxieties concerning social inequality and power hierarchies within the textual framework of the redefined woman’s domestic melodrama. rather than protect or provide for women.
After Hours (Scorcese. post-Fordist economic systems. in typically melodramatic terms. The key difference is in the location of villainy. emphasising its darker side and transforming the symbolic representative of this world – the yuppie – into a contemporary melodramatic villain. The postmodernist inclusion of new generic codes within the women’s melodrama – such as horror. In its inclusion of horror/thriller elements the postmodernist melodrama had much in common with the mid-1980s ‘yuppie horror’ cycle identified by Barry Keith Grant. trader or entrepreneur as symbol of social disintegration. gothic or thriller elements and the use of special effects – gives this critique of postmodern capitalism a more forceful impact. Yet it also draws on the more radical separatist tradition within late 1970s and 1980s feminist politics in which women’s politics was entwined with environmentalism and anticorporatism (Daly. This postmodernist critique of the social and cultural order is thus allied with and reworked through a redefined melodramatic form in which women are the active agents in both remaking heterosexual relations on more equal terms and attacking the social and power hierarchies created by the ‘masculine’ postmodern economic order. postmodernist generic codes and postmodern ethical and social concerns were combined here to create a redefined postmodernist women’s melodrama in which traditional notions of sexual and social morality and gender. male hero descends into a hellish underclass world of greed and criminality. more consistently countered by feminine virtue. Although the ‘monstrous’ criminal subculture functions as the repressed other of prosperous late capitalist culture. The postmodernist melodrama also highlights the complexity of popular postmodernist engagement with past forms and contemporary social and cultural concerns. 1986) the middle-class. male bourgeois world of social and material success. As these texts indicate. 1985) and Something Wild (Demme. It is more forcefully resisted and. The emphasis on the sexual exploitation of women also echoes the anti-pornographic campaigns led by writers .90 Postmodern Chick Flicks clearly within the cultural and social context of deregulated postindustrial. linked to the triumph of an ethos of individualist wealth acquisition and consumer greed associated with this period. In the woman’s melodrama greed and cruelty is more insistently associated with the wealthy. villainy is still deflected from the yuppie hero onto those excluded from the white. Crucial to this landscape is the figure of the yuppie. race and class hierarchies were critically explored. The cycle’s emphasis on feminine virtue connects it to an older tradition of stage and screen melodrama. In yuppie horrors such as Desperately Seeking Susan. 1979).
. The gradual decline of the influence of this form of separatist. 1997) in mid1970s and early 1980s and.The Early 1990s ‘Postmodernist’ Melodrama 91 Susan Brownmiller (1975) and Andrea Dworkin (1981. forms of late nineteenth evangelical feminism that espoused female purity and moral superiority. linking it to older forms of melodrama. anti-capitalist feminism in the 1990s is evident in later cycles and indicative of the rise of what is generally identified as a ‘post-feminist’ shift towards personal ambition and aspirations rather than a broader based feminist critique of social values.
relationships and the primacy of a female figure. demonstrates the emergence of a number of distinct. much of this discussion relied on a broad definition of women’s films. It seems likely that its swift rise and fall reflected its status as a popular filmic contribution to a specific moment of cultural and political disaffection with 1980s Reaganite post-Fordist economics. its articulation of this moment of cultural crisis was also one which drew on both an older melodramatic view of feminine virtue and in a less obvious form. melodrama. re-assessing production trends linked to critical responses and assumptions about the gendered audience for certain kinds of texts. romantic comedy. a rapidly 92 . or male melodrama. fan magazines and popular film reviews – proposed the likelihood of a long-term shift towards female-orientated production cycles which would gather momentum throughout the decade. These address those areas of postmodern cultural life defined as feminine through quite different formal and thematic conventions. Unlike the ‘yuppie’ horror film. others enjoyed only a brief moment of glory. In the previous chapter I discussed the relationship between the revised postmodernist melodrama and its timely conflation of anti-materialism and feminine virtue. As the comments from these sources in the previous chapter indicate. the female buddy movie or costume drama. What also becomes clear through an analysis of production patterns and box office figures from the 1990s onwards is that while some cycles did indeed enjoy the growing popularity predicted by enthusiastic critics in the early to mid-1990s. As I have already suggested. for example. generically based subcycles which were perceived as the ‘property’ of the female audience in the early 1990s.3 Romantic Comedy and Female Spectatorship The early 1990s discussion of ‘blockbuster’ women’s films – circulating via the trade press. loosely drawn together through a common interest in romance.
Meg Ryan and Renee Zellweger who became strongly associated with the form. . In this case the prediction turned out to have some validity: although high-concept. 1989) and more recently. 1989) through to Bridget Jones’s Diary (Maguire. For example. women-centred reworking of the sex-comedy and ‘nervous’ (1970s) romance (Reiner. radical feminism in which women were perceived as innately opposed to the 1980s politics of self-interest and greed. In this chapter I want to consider the reasons why the new romantic comedy became the predominant popular women’s film genre in the early 1990s and why it has remained so for a decade and a half. writing in the Guardian in 1991. Hollywood’s ‘renewed’ enthusiasm for romantic comedy proved more than a brief flirtation. Londonbased romantic comedies such as Four Weddings and a Funeral (Newell. big-budget action movies continued to dominate at the box office. The genre also bestowed star status on actors such as Julia Roberts. Gary Marshall’s ‘sequel’ to Runaway Bride (1999) and Nancy Meyer’s What Women Want (2000). Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (1993). Paul Hogan’s My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997). the interrelated media boom in chick lit and female-orientated television shows such as Ally McBeal. 1994). film critic Mike Bygraves argued that Hollywood had not only ‘. innovative. These included Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally (1989) (Screenplay by Nora Ephron). Notting Hill (Mitchell. renewed its love affair with romantic comedy’ but that (on the basis of the success of Pretty Woman and Green Card) ‘Romantic comedies look set to take over from the big-budget action movies of the 1980s’ (Bygraves. The global success and ‘branding’ of Bridget Jones highlights the way that. Sex and the City or Desperate Housewives. 2003). Tracing its development from When Harry Met Sally’s.Romantic Comedy and Female Spectatorship 93 fading form of essentialist. Like the romantic melodrama. 2001) and the unremitting allusionism of Down with Love (Reed. 1991: 30). . the romantic comedy was the subject of much popular media attention in the early 1990s and was also received and evaluated as a ‘revived’ golden Hollywood generic formula. the chapter argues that the romantic comedy has proved an important generic site for the articulation of tensions between the social and economic aspirations of contemporary . Outside Hollywood. the classical romantic comedy formula – which had not hitherto been regarded as a specifically female form – had become synonymous with the more recent phenomena of the popular ‘chick flick’ and. by beginning of the 2000s. Gary Marshall’s Pretty Woman (1990). with a steady stream of hits spanning the decade and beyond. Sharon Maguire’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and Beeban Kidron’s Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004) proved the most lucrative British cinematic exports since the 1960s. by association.
the heroines of such films tend to be conventionally attractive and – at least at a surface level – desirous of heterosexual commitment. As with the early 1990s new melodrama. 1990: 171–73). From nervous to new While popular media accounts of this cycle of blockbuster romantic comedies (dating from around the late 1980s) stressed its status as a revived female-orientated form. Although the new romantic comedy is rarely directly critical of ‘oldstyle’ (second-wave) feminism. In more general terms. The romantic comedy – as the predominant contemporary women’s form – is also the most closely associated with the discourse of postfeminism. academic cine-historians also argued that the new cycle was heavily dependent on prior manifestations of the genre (Neale. the continuing power of traditional gender roles and the atavistic. In a manner typical of post-feminist attitudes. Despite having a career and material aspirations. focusing on the postmodernist aspects of these texts – particularly their use of prior cinematic allusion – is especially useful in highlighting their contemporary blend of romance and cynicism. it is important to note that although the classical romantic comedy has received a good deal of critical attention . as does the female figures’ insistence on a more equal relationship. 1992: 17. But the form’s use of irony and allusionism also undercuts the traditional gender-coded fantasy. the new romantic comedy’s articulation of lack and desire (the basis of all romance) must be understood in comparison with and in relation to the previous cycles it so frequently draws on. their independence and career aspirations are downgraded in favour of the pursuit of ‘personal’ happiness. I want to begin by re-examining the assumptions concerning both its gendered appeal and its references to classical romantic comedy. 2005: 108). the continued contradiction between women’s personal and professional lives is more likely to be foregrounded in postfeminist discourse than the failure to eliminate either the pay gap or the burden of care between men and women’ (Tasker and Negra. cross-gender desire for bonding and emotional fulfilment. politics and education) are positioned alongside a persistently articulated dissatisfaction with the rhetoric of second-wave feminism.94 Postmodern Chick Flicks women. there is a persistent sense of lack associated with their singleton status. understood in relation to men. Firstly. Thus. Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra make the point that in postfeminist discourses ‘the achievements of certain important legal rights and enhanced visibility for women (in areas including law. Krutnik. being able to support themselves financially and having supportive friends.
(Krutnik. 1987: 118). self-sacrificial passion (Doane.Romantic Comedy and Female Spectatorship 95 (particularly in the 1990s) it was never a particular focus of feminist interest nor identified as belonging to that group of classical cycles brought together under the broad banner of ‘the woman’s film’. one of the most striking aspects of the classical woman’s film is the way in which the object of the heroine’s affection is less a focus of the film’s attention than her excessive desire for him. which can happily flourish with or without his actual presence. 1990: 149) Comic events tend to puncture and defuse the excess of emotion associated with the romantic melodrama. In addition to the distancing effects of comedy and the intrusive presence of the male protagonist. which is the most derivative of the classical women’s ‘weepie’. In contrast. In the classical romantic comedy. 1948). specific forms of female unhappiness – such as unwittingly ending up with the kind of brutal bullying husband depicted in Sleeping with the Enemy – are countered by self-assertion rather than self-sacrifice. the hero’s absence and/or indifference provides the ideal conditions from which to muster maximum dramatic effect from the heroine’s intense. Whereas the classical female-orientated romantic melodrama encouraged a ‘feminine’ identification with the suffering heroine. As critics such as Mary Ann Doane have argued of ‘weepie’ classics such as Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls. the classical . One obvious reason for this is that while the genre revolves around thematic preoccupations culturally defined as feminine (desire and romance). it has tended to allot at least equal weight to the perspective of the leading male. The morbid preoccupation with the darker aspects of female experience associated with the classical woman’s film recedes from female-orientated cycles that have appeared since the early 1990s. As Frank Krutnik argues: Whereas (melo) drama relies upon the spectator’s engagement with a fictional articulation of a set of narrative problems – an engagement based upon identification with one or very few of the desiring characters – the process of comedy more acutely involves a play between identification and distanciation. anguish and heartbreak are off set by the genre’s use of humour. The romantic melodrama’s preference for doomed romance and absent heroes suggests that the latter is more conducive to the narrative exploration of female desire. the romantic comedy subjects the whole business of romantic angst to a salutary measure of ridicule. Even in the postmodernist melodrama. allowing it to develop unfettered by the actual demands and mundane realities of long-term heterosexual relationships.
the sex-comedy (1950s–1960s) and the nervous romance (1970s). Hence the emphasis on childlike play and mutual attraction which characterises screwball’s such as . Olson Lent (1995). the romantic comedy constitutes a particularly rich source of inquiry regarding these issues. Given the structural and ideological differences between its various cycles. the much-scrutinised cycle that succeeded it – the 1930s screwball is generally understood within the framework of a more radical redefinition of marriage. Neale (1992). Not surprisingly. 1920) and Old Wives for New (de Mille. Among key studies of the genre – Krutnik (1990. thus limiting specific identification with the heroine.96 Postmodern Chick Flicks romantic comedy also exhibited a structural drive towards marriage and coupledom that took precedence over the individual desires of each partner. 1918) in which frustrated. the norms of sexual behaviour and the social function of marriage. including those that view the latest cycle as a nostalgic and anachronistic reworking of earlier modes. 1998). Shumway (1991). encompasses a shifting field of thematic and formal elements. If the (broad) conventions of classical romantic comedy are so clearly at odds with those of the classical woman’s film. in which polarised gender roles and the Victorian cult of domesticity have given way to a more progressive friendship-based model. Put crudely. Rowe (1995) and Musser (1995) – a degree of critical consensus exists concerning the historical specificity of and formal distinctions between cycles such as the early comedy of remarriage (1920s–1930s). most critical accounts foreground the genre’s role in mediating cultural shifts concerning courtship rituals. this results in comedies such as Why Change Your Wife? (de Mille. de Mille ‘comedies of remarriage’ or ‘old love’ – suggests that the genre was initially driven by the need to reconcile post-war patterns of rising divorce and a (marginally) greater degree of female independence to the duty-bound conventions of Victorian marriage. Babington and Evans (1989). highlighting the way in which the specific rules and conventions which comprise the discourse of heterosexual coupledom have been articulated in different cultural contexts. the romantic comedy. Likewise. long-term couples are encouraged to rekindle their initial passion rather than ditch their spouses in favour of newer/younger partners. Charles Musser’s analysis of the first Hollywood manifestation of the form – the Cecil B. why has this particular cycle been identified as both ‘feminine’ and derivative of earlier modes of the genre? To answer this question I want to look at recent cine-historical approaches to the romantic comedy. For example. the screwball comedy (1930s–1940s). Although distinguishable from the romantic melodrama in terms of the differences that I have identified. like any other film genre.
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Bringing up Baby (Hawks, 1938), It Happened One Night (Capra, 1934), His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1940) and The Lady Eve (Sturges, 1941). The screwball comedy occupies a privileged position in most histories of the form, being the most commercially successful of the classical romantic comedy cycles and the one which brought together the characteristics commonly associated with the form’s overall composition: comic situations, loveably eccentric protagonists and a romance narrative which more or less conforms to the rule of initial antagonism leading to eventual compromise, negotiated through a series of comic interactions. To return to the questions surrounding the re-emergence of the form in the late 1980s and its nostalgic concern with past forms, I want to focus on accounts of the later cycles, particularly the manner in which many socio-culturally based historical critiques of the form focus on the distinction between the late 1950s/early 1960s ‘sex-comedies’ and the late 1970s ‘nervous’ romance. Within most histories of the romantic comedy, the transition between these cycles is understood as a key point of thematic and ideological rupture, separating the innocent playfulness of the earlier classical cycles from the self-conscious cynicism of the late 1970s mode (Neale and Krutnik, 1990; Krutnik 1990; Neale, 1992). This moment is critically marked by Brian Henderson’s influential, if somewhat premature, 1978 generic post-mortem: ‘Romantic Comedy Today: Semi-Tough or Impossible?’ Drawing on Freudian approaches to the romantic comedy, Henderson argued that since the genre thrived on erotic sublimation – the reorientation of libidinal energy into flirtatious verbal banter – it was unlikely to survive the impact of less stringent censorship laws. In Henderson’s view, the possibility of more explicit visual depictions of pre-marital sexual activity deprived the genre of its famous euphemistic language games. He also argues that, in a more general sense, permissiveness heightened the conflict between the desire for personal fulfilment and socially sanctioned forms of sexual behaviour. Although the contradiction between individual desire and the rules and regulations governing sexuality had been a central theme of romantic comedy since its cinematic inception, Henderson argued that, by the late 1970s, the prohibition of extra- and pre-marital sexual activity was no longer seen as a fair trade-off for marital security: a problem explored in comedies such as Semi-Tough (Ritchie, 1977) in which the major protagonists are unwilling to submit to the restrictions of the marriage contract: Romantic comedy posited men and women willing to meet on a common ground and to engage all their faculties and capacities in sexual
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dialectic . . . what we begin to see now in films is a withdrawal of men and women from this ground. (Henderson, 1978: 19) As it turned out, Henderson was wrong to assume that the circulation of more explicit sexual discourses and the wider cultural effects of the sexual revolution would result in the genre’s obsolescence. Nevertheless, this understanding of the relationship between liberalisation and the genre strongly influenced attitudes towards the predominant romantic comedy cycle of the 1970s – identified as the ‘nervous’ romance by Frank Krutnik (Krutnik, 1990). This cycle is best exemplified by Woody Allen’s urbane social comedies Play it Again Sam (Ross, 1972), Manhattan (Allen, 1978) and Annie Hall (Allen, 1979) – from which the term ‘nervous romance’ originates – in which marital breakdown and serial monogamy became new sources of humour and erotic tension. The critical trajectory which emerged from these approaches – in which the sexual conformity of the classical cycles is set against the permissive angst of the post-classical ‘nervous’ mode – provided the critical context in which the more recent cycle or romantic comedy (late 1980s onwards) was initially understood as nostalgic and revisionist. Despite the wider critical emphasis on the new romantic comedy as a revised classical form, it seems clear that if romantic comedy can be said to exist as a distinct generic category (allowing for the formal and thematic differences between cycles), the genre’s current incarnation in the late 1980s/early 1990s was a little too close to the nervous romance to constitute a wholesale generic ‘come-back’ (Krutnik cites texts produced as late as 1987 as additions to the nervous cycle). What was at stake was the less sudden reappearance of a neglected genre, than the revival of certain attitudes, situations and structural features deemed reminiscent of the popular classical cycles. For example, Steve Neale’s discussion of the contemporary ‘new’ romance drew attention to ‘the persistent evocation and endorsement of the signs and values of old-fashioned romance’ (Neale, 1992: 295). Similarly, Krutnik’s analysis of new romantic comedies such as Moonstruck (Jewison, 1987) and Broadcast News (Brooks, 1987) suggested that the new cycle worked to . . . intensify this desire to return to heterosexual romance in the contemporary era of sexual revisionism. Twenty years after the peak of the sexual revolution, the concept of ‘the couple’ is being reinvoked as safeguard not merely against the divisions of modern life but also against the post-AIDs danger of ‘illicit sexuality. (Krutnik, 1990: 172)
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For both Krutnik and Neale, stylistic and thematic references to earlier modes of romantic comedy underpinned the recent cycle’s ideological allegiance to revisionist sexual politics. The return of certain structural features associated with the ‘screwball’ comedy – the marital denouement for example – was therefore firmly situated within the context of late 1980s Reaganite neo-conservatism and a post-permissive backlash linked to right-wing politics and the AIDS crisis. This evaluation also has to be understood within a critical discourse that emphasises the genre’s overall ideological tendency to endorse and validate the idea of marriage and monogamy. From this perspective, the permissive scepticism of the nervous mode is swiftly abandoned in favour of a more generically characteristic and conservative celebration of long-term heterosexual coupledom. Or to put it another way, while the values endorsed within the new romance are regarded as those which permeate the genre as a whole, their reappearance in the wake of cultural incredulity towards these ideals seems inevitably tinged with nostalgia – hence the critical emphasis on the genre’s return or revival. It is at this point that critical approaches to the ‘new’ romantic comedy intersect with broader, cross-generic debates on the nostalgia film and postmodernist representational strategies. As I argued in Chapter 1, feminist theoretical engagement with postmodernist cinema has frequently drawn connections between the nostalgia mode and the patriarchal desire to return to pre-feminist conceptions of sexual difference. Accordingly, many of the new romantic comedies were accused of manifesting this nostalgic anti-feminist impulse. For example, Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman – one of the first texts to be identified by both academic critics and the trade press as part of a ‘new’ female-orientated romance cycle – was criticised by both feminist academics and those writing in the popular press for its ‘Cinderella’ plotline and rose-tinted view of prostitution, fuelling feminist suspicions that cinematic nostalgia serves to reinforce old-style patriarchal fantasies. Gender-based critiques of postmodern nostalgia had much in common therefore with Neale and Krutnik’s more general view that the revived genre was more conservative than the nervous 1970s mode. Indeed, Steve Neale includes ‘countering the threat of the independent woman’ as one of the four defining features of the cycle (Neale, 1992: 295). The main difference between these perspectives is that while Neale and Krutnik’s broader accounts linked the new romantic comedy to a more general mood of neo-conservative ‘sexual revisionism’, feminist critics were quicker to situate the new romance within the specific context of a perceived antifeminist backlash and connect this with Hollywood’s early 1990s attempts
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to reclaim the hearts of the female audience through ‘patronising’ romance narratives. Lizzie Franke’s analysis of Hollywood’s sudden interest in ‘feeling’ movies states the case bluntly: ‘Such a notion of what women want panders to old-fashioned values with women as slaves to sentimental and warped visions of themselves – as in Pretty Woman’ (Franke, 1994: 100). The new romance was thus initially condemned as a women’s cycle in the most pejorative sense of the term, as a genre in which female viewing pleasure is tied to anachronistic conceptions of feminine fantasy and the idea of the weak-minded, sentimental female viewer.
Gender, romance and the ‘informed’ female viewer
Thus summarised, the question of what genres appeal to gendered sections of the audience and debates on the post-classical ‘return’ of old Hollywood formulas converge in approaches to the 1990s cycle of romantic comedies. Having traced these two paths and the point at which they intersect, I want to highlight some (critical) problems concerning the association of nostalgia, anti-feminism and the new cycle. To begin with, the approaches to the new romance that initially viewed it as regressive were heavily reliant on the opposition between the ‘permissive’ nervous mode of the 1970s and what they view as the repressive nostalgic cycle dating from the late 1980s. From a feminist perspective the superior critical value attached to the nervous mode is, to say the least, somewhat problematic. Although the nervous cycle goes some way towards exploring issues of marital breakdown, the constraints of monogamy and the influence of feminism – as Krutnik observes in his incisive analysis of Woody Allen’s Manhattan – it tends to do so from the perspective of the ‘nervous’ menopausal male protagonist. On the other hand, the classical cycle which the new romance is frequently said to evoke (in particular, the screwball comedy) is marked by its inclusion of strong-willed heroines and mutual fun and companionship as a basis for marriage. If the new romance is aiming to appeal to women, it is not surprising that this older cycle offers a model of relationships which is more in tune with the aims and expectations of contemporary female viewers than the nervous cycle’s preoccupation with male anxieties. However, the older, pre-feminist cycle’s more ‘liberal’ attitudes to women also problematises the assumption that shifts in socio-cultural attitudes and practices are reflected within genre cycles in a straightforward manner. As with the postmodernist melodrama, although contemporary attitudes and expectations of gendered behaviour provide an important framing context
the nervous cycle’s emphasis on unhappy angst-ridden singles may work to endorse the value of marriage and monogamy as much as a traditional happy ending. the sexual dynamic between the major protagonists in romantic comedy tends to be presented as representative of the conflict between masculine and feminine values and attitudes towards love. Lorreta Castorini (Cher) enables the brooding. These thematic concerns highlight the way in which. a more important indicator of the degree to which the film challenges patriarchal assumptions concerning the balance of power within heterosexual relationships than its inclusion or rejection of the marital denouement. generically speaking. Indeed. the desire for happy long-term relationships is registered as strongly in the nervous mode as in any previous cycle. from a feminist perspective. emotionally stunted hero Ronnie (Nicolas Cage) to reconcile a long-standing feud with his brother and re-establish his status within a wider network of extended Italian–American families. uneducated but morally superior prostitute girlfriend. the male hero Edward (Richard Gere). Vivien. This may also explain why the new cycle of romantic comedy was quickly characterised as a women’s cycle in that the genre’s characteristic learning process – in which the central protagonists modify their behaviour in accordance with the desires of the other partner – leans fairly heavily towards the female protagonist. Brian Henderson’s assumption that romantic comedy would disappear without the determining effects of sexual repression was proved wrong because he emphasised its comedy over romance. the love of a ‘good’ woman. sex and marriage. in Pretty Woman. The weight attached to the viewpoint of each member of the couple and the level of equality within their relationship is. For example.Romantic Comedy and Female Spectatorship 101 (and generate new sources of dramatic material) even prior to the selfconscious allusionism attributed to many postmodernist texts. in Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck. as I argued in relation to the postmodernist melodrama. This is particularly important given that. They were and continue to be – as is particularly apparent in the case of romantic comedy – at some level driven by atavistic desires and fantasies. Similarly. underestimating the genre’s powerful manifestation of the desire for love and companionship. genre cycles were indebted to and informed by the tropes and conventions of previous fictional models. such as class/power relations or conflicts . Irrespective of its emphasis on relationship breakdown. romance narratives also function to mobilise socio-cultural concerns around other issues. a callous. wealthy corporate raider. learns to reject the aggressive masculine values of the workplace and give up corporate wheeler-dealing under the tuition of his impoverished.
which clearly have a wider cross-gender appeal. (Carroll.102 Postmodern Chick Flicks between the individual and the community. college-bred film appreciation societies and film society audiences’ (Carroll. often ironic. assisted by both the recirculation of old texts and self-conscious allusions to them in contemporary cinema (Corrigan. shots and so on) and that (2) informed viewers are not supposed to take this as evidence of plagiarism or uninspired derivativeness in the new film – as they might in a previous decade – but as part of the expressive design of the new film. 1998). But more recent discussion of post-classical spectatorship – such as Tim Corrigan’s work on new Hollywood auteurs – suggests that the once esoteric vocabulary of film scholarship has extended beyond an elite group of cinephiles to the wider viewing public. the prevalence of cinematic self-reflexivity and popular use of prior cinematic allusion is generally associated with the restructuring of Hollywood into post-Fordist multimedia ‘new Hollywood’ and the increased availability of classic and contemporary films via the expansion of video. tone of the nostalgia mode and its implications for understanding contemporary modes of spectatorial engagement. As I argued in Chapter 1. But the notion of the newly cine-literate informed viewer runs the risk of underplaying both the complexity of classical generic codes and audience engagement with them. The assumption that contemporary film audiences are ‘in the know’ at least to the extent of recognising heavy-handed thematic and stylistic references to classical generic forms has become commonplace in discussions of postmodernist auteurs such as David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino. genres. DVD and cable television. The symbolic function of fantasies culturally demarcated as masculine or feminine exceeds their association with real socially and historically constructed gendered audiences. Genre cycles have always referred to and drawn life from their predecessors. In his early 1980s discussion of post-classical Hollywood and allusion. the old trope of the impressionable female viewer is woefully inadequate in dealing with the complex. 1982: 52). It is less a question of a sudden shift . Nöel Carroll argued that explicit references to prior cinematic codes and styles assumed the emergence of the ‘informed viewer’ stating: informed viewers are meant to recall past films (filmmakers. 1982: 52) In Carroll’s early account of the emergence of post-classical cinematic self-reflexivity this level of cine-literacy is still deemed to be the preserve of a privileged coterie of ‘film school critics. If such films are indeed popular with female audiences (although not exclusively so).
as I demonstrate below. appreciated and understood by contemporary audiences. the semiotics of oldfashioned romance cannot help but highlight the gap between pre. . 1992: 28) If the narrative play of distanciation and engagement typical of romantic comedy is accentuated by the overt fantasy framing of the new allusionist style. yet at the same time wishes to do so. Lapsley and Westlake’s psychoanalytically based analysis of the new romance is one of the few critical approaches to the new romantic comedy which acknowledges the dual character of the cycle. (Lapsley and Westlake. vulnerable female viewer. but tempers it with a postmodernist irony. One of the most broadly appealing aspects of the new cycle may then be that it revives a particularly dizzy brand of romance.and ‘post’-feminist views of romance and relationships. Their reading of Pretty Woman argues: By deliberately announcing itself as a fairy tale. allowing the clued-up contemporary ‘post’feminist viewer to have it all: to indulge in the derided pleasures associated with the romance fantasy or weepie woman’s film while also maintaining a degree of critical distance. Pretty Woman succeeds in bridging the contradiction faced by the spectator who is no longer able to believe in romance (especially in a film so beset with implausibility and inconsistency). when this higher degree of cinematic self-consciousness reaches the popular woman’s film it is bypassed by both popular film criticism and cinehistorical accounts of the forms re-emergence in favour of the old trope of the impressionable female viewer ensnared by patriarchal visions of feminine desire. As I will stress in my readings of the two Nora Ephron films.Romantic Comedy and Female Spectatorship 103 from naïve belief to irony than the emergence of a more heightened sense of past cinematic codes and styles that is registered within certain contemporary films and. this results in a ‘double displacement’ of the traditional romance fantasy (through comic disruption and nostalgic distanciation) that is at odds with the notion of the over-identifying. it seems fair to assume. by foregrounding the formal and thematic particularities of previous cycles it may work as much to ‘expose’ their ideological endorsement of marriage and monogamy as to reinforce their values and ethics. if the new romance is distinguished from previous cycles through the knowing inclusion of intertextual quotation or the nostalgic evocation of past styles. Although the idea of the informed viewer has never been explicitly gendered. Even when bathed in the rosy glow of nostalgia.
At a surface level. through to the ‘kookier’ female leads. after all.104 Postmodern Chick Flicks Romantic irony and the single girl The continuing popularity of the form throughout the 1990s and early 2000s also problematises its perceived relation to late 1980s/early 1990s neo-conservative politics. . single late 1920s/early 1930s female persists across the cycle. the thematic concern with the feisty. 1997). or Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Even in a film such as What Women Want – which focuses more on the male protagonist – the romance narrative is structured by the female protagonist’s anxieties concerning her career or lifestyle aspirations versus her attraction to the male lead. independent women with far greater choices concerning relationships and marriage creates a tension between the old pressures and new pleasures and aspirations. To consider this phenomena I want to focus on the particular mix of irony and romance that characterises this cycle. women have been working in ever greater numbers since the beginning of the twentieth century. later examples such as Sleepless in Seattle. such as Julianne Potter (Julia Roberts) in My Best Friend’s Wedding. the improved education of Western women and their professional advancement has resulted in a higher number of women remaining single for a greater part of their life (Garrett. From When Sally Met Harry’s efficient Sally Albright (Meg Ryan). emerging as the front-runner of women’s genres over the past decade. Yet single working women are hardly a novelty. If the popularity of the postmodernist melodrama – which more clearly relates to a specific cultural moment – was relatively short-lived. this does reflect a specific socio-economic trend of our times. Although some early examples of the cycle – such as Pretty Woman and Moonstruck – echo the ‘postmodernist’ melodrama by situating women in the role of moral redeemer. rather than spinster or traditional maiden aunt. What has shifted is the social status and cultural fantasies concerning the newly identified figure of the ‘singleton’. the new romantic comedy has gone from strength to strength. As numerous ethnographic surveys have indicated. Runaway Bride or Bridget Jones’s Diary tend to focus more strongly on the female protagonist’s attempts to balance independence and/or career fulfilment with the desire for long-term relationships. relating it to the wider emergence of modern ‘chick’-orientated entertainment in the early 1990s. The fictional singleton is still haunted by the low status of the traditional spinster (hence the continuing preoccupation with pair-bonding) but the emergence of a generation of educated.
Clearly there can be no straightforward re-assertion or re-articulation of prior generically coded values and ideals. This productive tension between romance and irony is not only a feature of the new romantic comedy. if the narrative play of distanciation and engagement typical of the romantic comedy (and various other contemporary female-orientated fictional genres) is accentuated by the overt fantasy framing of the recent cycle. Anne Friedberg . Either the heroine herself sways between an idealistic belief in. popular reworkings will always bear the traces of contemporary preoccupations.Romantic Comedy and Female Spectatorship 105 One of the most appealing and successful aspects of these texts (and their richest source of comedy) is the way in which the ‘feminine’ romance fantasy is offset by. In other words. Furthermore. Rather than directly attacking the figure of the independent woman. Like many of the new romantic comedies Ally McBeal also features a central female protagonist whose attempts to sustain her belief in oldfashioned romance are undermined by both the cynicism of the secondary characters and the programme’s use of fantasy sequences to emphasise its heroine’s dreamy disengagement from the harsh realities of modern life. The popularity of romantic comedy over romantic melodrama – and a particularly tongue-in-check version at that – suggests that if there is a ‘feminine’ viewing position offered to women by contemporary Hollywood it is more compatible with comedy. romance (Bridget Jones’s Diary’s reworking of Pride and Prejudice. or her belief in the traditional romance fantasy is cut down to size by a hard-headed but loyal friend – such as Becky (Rosie O’Donnell) in Sleepless in Seattle. such as Sex and the City and Ally McBeal. this results in a double displacement of the traditional romance fantasy (through comic disruption and prior fictional allusion) which undercuts the notion of the susceptible female viewer. for example). which also turned the spotlight on the lifestyle and aspirations of young. such fiction uses this figure as a focal point for the comic exploration of the conflict between romantic idealism and both the broader post-permissive cynicism typical of the nervous cycle and a more specifically feminist-inspired suspicion of the discourse of romantic love. a cooler framework of postmodernist irony. and feminist inspired critique of. it is also the structuring aesthetic mode for contemporary ‘chick lit’ and female-orientated television shows. than the pathos and sentiment associated with the classical woman’s film. or at least postmodernist irony. or set against. independent professional women. the nostalgic elements in such texts – those drawing on both the classical melodrama and previous cycles of the romantic comedy – must be considered in relation to their framing context.
(Friedberg. It is no coincidence that both films are closely associated with scriptwriter Nora Ephron. giving the genre’s sexual dialectic both a more ‘feminine’ slant and using codes and conventions from previous cycles in a knowing and recognisable manner. 1993: 189) As I have shown. and old movies are recycled in a new relation to the present. refracted through direct cinematic quotation and references to prior generic codes and conventions. I want to highlight the more ambivalent. McCreadle. Ephron’s influence is particularly significant here given both the rarity of female scriptwriters in Hollywood and the relatively high priority awarded to sharp dialogue – as opposed to action – within the romantic comedy form. nostalgia seems to be a two edged sword: it can return to outworn values erasing all intervening history. Ephron’s acclaim is largely due to her perceived ability to imbue modern romance narratives with an old style Hollywood magic.106 Postmodern Chick Flicks neatly summarised this issue in her discussion of space. Through the inclusion of well-known . to contrast its values in a critical combination with the present. eclipsing even that of the director Rob Reiner and allowing her a more central role in the development of the ‘sequel’ Sleepless in Seattle (Myers. who also directed Sleepless in Seattle. and yet nostalgia has the potential to reinvent the past. particularly the influence of feminism. 1994: 187). focusing particularly on the way in which these texts explore the tensions between old and new romance. Having achieved moderate success with her screenplays for the realist docu-drama Silkwood (1984) and earlier downbeat romance Heartburn (1985). feminist-influenced use of nostalgia and self-reflexivity through an analysis of When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. Vintage clothes. Ephron’s association with award winning blockbuster When Harry Met Sally won her unusual fame as a scriptwriter. vintage cars. time and postmodern cinema when she stated: For feminists. This is no easy task given the conflict between the genre’s characteristic central drive towards marriage and coupledom. In When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. the initial theoretical engagement with the recent cycle of popular new romantic comedies accused them of endorsing the ‘outworn values’ of prior romance as a means of evading the complexities of modern gender relations. 1992: 28. Ephron tackled these problems in two ways. its previous emphasis on conventional gender roles and the attitudes and expectations of contemporary postfeminist audiences.
1992: 28). Of the two films. Reviews and star interviews highlighted the referential homage to past romantic comedies. When Harry Met Sally is the less overtly ‘rétro’ although it too draws on a recognisable range of romantic comedy references. 1993: 55). and Meg Ryan’s (then) newly acquired fame as ‘the new queen of romantic comedy’. black and white credits. Kathleen Rowe went so . in Sleepless in Seattle. Furthermore. while Ryan and O’ Donnell were gushingly enthusiastic. highlighting the way in which their use of references to prior cycles of romantic comedy and melodrama work to undercut both the patriarchal logic of certain well-known romantic comedy cycles (particularly the 1950s sex-comedy and the nervous romance in When Harry Met Sally) and the notion of the impressionable female romance viewer (in Sleepless in Seattle). ‘Post’-feminist romance and intratextual female viewer My readings of When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle will stress the latter aspect of these films. the text’s presumed appeal to women was also perpetuated in interviews with stars. flaunting the Ephron/Ryan partnership. Initial (popular media) critical responses to the film thus tended to reinforce its romance narrative at the expense of its ironic wit (Coburn. Manhattan backdrop and narrative concern with the social and romantic entanglements of professional thirty-somethings. Reinforcing the nostalgic elements of the texts. At the time of its release many critics drew attention to its obvious appropriation of elements associated with the ‘nervous’ romance: the opening jazz score. as a star perceived as particularly appealing to women. old-fashioned evocation of past romance. the extra-textual discourses surrounding the films’ release focused approvingly on what was viewed as their charming.Romantic Comedy and Female Spectatorship 107 past romantic comedy tropes such as the split-screen phone conversation in When Harry Met Sally (reminiscent of the 1950s sex-comedy) or the direct intersplicing of Leo McCarey’s 1957 weepie classic. Henry and Phoebe Ephron. Predictably. More ambivalently. Tom Hanks and Rosie O’ Donnell. Ephron herself stressed that it was ‘not a movie about love but about love in the movies’ (Myers. An Affair to Remember. Hanks claimed to hate it. Meg Ryan’s presence within both films also did much to bolster their identification with female audiences. playing on Nora Ephron’s aristocratic Hollywood connections as the daughter of famous 1950s script-writing partners. Following the success of When Harry Met Sally TriStar insistently flagged Sleepless in Seattle as a ‘chick’ movie. both films assume the spectator’s awareness of the form’s many classical antecedents which allows for the kind of critical engagement with stock-in-trade sexual archetypes suggested by Friedberg. Ryan.
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far as to describe it as remake of Annie Hall, while Norman Denzin viewed it as a pale imitation of the more sophisticated, serious ‘nervous’ mode (Denzin, 1991: 112–24). Again, the distinction drawn here by Denzin was between the serious, self-analytical tone of the ‘nervous’ romance and the shallow, style consciousness of the late 1980s cycle. Denzin’s scathing analysis of the film suggested that it retreated from the ‘nervous’ cycle’s painful but worthy exploration of ‘anhedonia’ (the term he uses to designate an epidemic of pleasure blocking postmodern angst) into banal romance fantasies, he stated: When Harry Met Sally refuses Woody Allen’s argument that anhedonia is a basic feature of the contemporary condition. Every character in this film, including the six documentary couples, finds happiness in marriage. (Denzin, 1991: 119) Similarly, while Frank Krutnik’s 1999 analysis of the film recognises its playful generic self-consciousness, he argues that this is mobilised in the service of the film’s overall conservatism. Comparing the film unfavourably with examples of the ‘nervous’ mode he states: When Harry Met Sally is an exemplary new romance because it values aesthetic fabrication not as part of a process of critical self-awareness, as in Annie Hall does, but as a necessary tool to achieve the reconsolidation of romantic illusion. The film reorders the repertoire of romantic comedy conceptions to paper over the void exposed by Alvy Singer’s brutally honest auto-critique. (Krutnik, 1999: 19) Yet in many ways When Harry Met Sally is less a sanitised, lightweight take on the nervous romance than an amalgamation of 1970s nervous and 1950s sex-comedy visual motifs, figures and preoccupations which offers a more feminist slant on both cycles. At a narrative level, the playboy-meets-prude plotline is more reminiscent of a Doris Day/Rock Hudson classic than the 1970s permissive mode (which tends to feature introspective, troubled women such as Annie Hall). The inclusion of documentary style interviews featuring ordinary, older, less affluent or photogenic couples than those whose experiences command centre stage also adds a realist frame to When Harry Met Sally’s concern with yuppie romance, intensifying the contradictions between different narrative codes and formal features. In addition to this, the fantasy frame that surrounds the main plotline is accentuated, as in Sleepless in Seattle, through the (largely female)
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characters’ discussion of their desire for ‘love in the movies’ and the many references to the canonical weepie, Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942). As one of the best-known Hollywood golden oldies, contemporary textual allusions to Casablanca are numerous, indeed, the film tends to function metonymically, its status as a signifier of ‘classic’ Hollywood eclipsing actual narrative content. In When Harry Met Sally the particular references to Casablanca (and its famous menage-a-trois) again emphasise its generic roots in the 1950s sex-comedy and the nervous mode. In Play it Again Sam (Ross, 1972), the inner world of the insecure, leading male character Peter (Woody Allen) is dominated by an alter ego/ fantasy companion in the form of Casablanca’s Rick (Humphrey Bogart). The Bogart fantasy is set against intermittent appearances of his ex-wife. While the (fantasy) ex-wife criticises and humiliates him, Bogart encourages him to be more assertive with women, constantly reminding him of his superior status. Although the film initially uses the Bogart fantasy to set up and explore the comic incompatibility between classical Hollywood machismo and Peter’s failed encounters with ‘actual liberated’ modern women, Bogart’s approach is finally vindicated in his dealings with the leading female protagonist Linda (Diane Keaton) who, as the Bogart fantasy anticipates, proves highly responsive to flattery and his aggressive sexual advances. Given When Harry Met Sally’s obvious affiliation to the nervous mode (New York, jazz score, troubled sophisticated urbanites and so forth), its references to Casablanca allude to both the classical film and Woody Allen’s later appropriation of it. As in Play it Again Sam, references to Casablanca serve as a focal point for its exploration of gender-based differences in approaches to love and sexuality in the generic terrain of the romantic comedy. This generically based heterosexual conflict is wholly in keeping, not only with the nervous romance, but also the concerns of the 1950s sex-comedy, in which an easy pact between hero and heroine can only be forged when, as in Freud’s famous dictum, men agree to exchange love for sex, and women, sex for love. In When Harry Met Sally the gender battle-lines are drawn during the protagonists’ first encounter. This takes place when, in their late teens, Harry and Sally share the journey from Chicago to New York, en route to embarking on their high flying media careers (he becomes a political consultant, she a journalist). Our first view of the couple finds Harry leaning up against Sally’s car, kissing her besotted roommate, while Sally, eager to begin the journey, looks on with mounting irritation. Having hinted at the generically familiar antagonism between a frosty, level-headed woman and a lady-killing, predatory man, this dynamic is reinforced in the following scene in which character is established through heated debates
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on well-known pop cultural scenarios. The conversation centres on Casablanca’s famous denouement and the question of Elsa’s (Ingrid Bergman) climatic ‘choice’ between the respectability and social prestige awarded through marriage and the possibility of sexual fulfilment embodied by Rick (Bogart). Predictably, Sally assures Harry that she, like Elsa, would happily relinquish passion for worldly recognition and material comfort: Sally: I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in Casablanca with a man that runs a bar. Harry: You’d rather be in a passionless marriage than with the man you had the best sex of your life with just because he runs a bar? Sally: Any woman would do the same, women are very practical like that. Harry chauvinistically interprets her response as confirmation of Sally’s sexual inexperience, thus prompting her unconvincing and embarrassed retort as they enter the road stop diner: ‘it just so happens that I have had plenty of great sex’, an announcement which is greeted by hushed amazement by the onlookers. As a comic moment, the incident thus strictly adheres to the Freudian logic of the sex-comedy, in which the ‘prudish’ woman is situated as the butt of the sexual joke. To achieve this, the exchange must (improbably) overlook the fact that – as everyone knows – Elsa makes no such decision. On the contrary, Casablanca’s denouement tugs at the heartstrings precisely because Rick’s decision to send her packing – when she clearly wants to stay – is his final ennobling act. But the obvious misreading serves to emphasise another, more figurative allusion to earlier modes of romantic comedy as Sally is quickly established as self-centred and sexually repressed – in a similar mode to figures such as Pillow Talk’s (Gordon, 1959) Jan Morrow (Doris Day) – and Harry as her spontaneous unrestrained, sexual other. The conversation is thus followed by Harry’s sexual proposition and Sally’s shocked refusal, a scene strongly reminiscent of the 1950s sexcomedy, in which, as Krutnik reminds us: In their ability not to ‘give in’ to the sexual demands of the wolfish playboy, her (Doris Day’s) characters were subjected to continual abuse from the latter in regard to her ‘sexual competence’ . . . The hero’s efforts to bring her to bed represented in large part an attempt to break her will, to shatter her sexual self-confidence and independence. (Krutnik, 1990: 7)
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At a deeper level, the conflict between these familiar figures also recalls Freud’s theorisation of differentiated male (anaclitic) and female (narcissistic) modes of romantic attachment (Freud, 1978). Broadly speaking, anaclitic love – the ‘masculine’ type – arises as the male subject successfully transfers his active, infantile desire for the mother into the erotic over-valuation of subsequent female figures. Conversely, narcissism – the ‘feminine’ type – deflects the same desire selfwards, resulting in the cool indifference, or ‘frigidity’ of the self-contained, Doris Day/Sally Albright female figure. The Freudian underpinnings of this dynamic are significant given the influence of psychoanalytic thinking on previous cycles of the romantic comedy, particularly the nervous mode, which frequently includes fantasies and dream sequences (Play it Again Sam), and many of the characters discuss their therapy sessions. In When Harry Met Sally this gendered division and the popular Freudianism of the chattering classes is alluded to in scenes in which the central characters discuss their sexual dreams and fantasies: Sally: I dream a faceless man rips my clothes off Harry: That’s the sex-fantasy you’ve been having since you were thirteen? Don’t you vary it? Sally: Yes, mainly what I am wearing. Harry subsequently confesses that he is troubled by a repetitive dream in which, performing at a ‘sex-olympics’, his mother gives him the lowest score. Initially at least, then, Harry and Sally remain inextricably bound to the narcissistic/anaclitic drives embodied by their generic forebears: a dynamic that bars the acknowledgement of an active female desire. In keeping with the film’s tagline ‘can women and men be friends or does sex always get in the way?’ or perhaps, more accurately, can they be both friends and lovers? The attempted resolution of the gendered conflict between the feminine desire for love and male desire for sex forms the core of the main story line. As we might expect, the protagonist’s first fleeting encounters – in which these differences are somewhat overstressed – paves the way for their developing friendship and eventual reapprocement. Meeting for the third time, now in their early thirties and with two failed relationships behind them, Harry and Sally’s final encounter results in a more sustained exploration of these conflicts, couched significantly, in terms of a feminist critique of the sexual double standard.
But while Sally has mellowed with age. non-sexual nature of feminine desire. discussing the film alone in their apartments. This reversal of the usual sex-comedy formula is also articulated. This is presented as symptomatic of Harry’s anachronistic attitudes. marks a key turning point from antagonism to intimacy. Echoing and reversing the earlier diner scene. that prevents a sexual relationship emerging. it also suggests that beneath his macho posturing Harry is simply unable to cope with a sexually mature woman. the film’s best-known scene – that of Sally’s faked orgasm in the Katz diner – is striking and effective not only because it so sharply parodies and explodes male sexual vanity (phallic insecurities are endlessly paraded and explored within the nervous cycle) but because it does so from a specifically ‘feminine’ viewpoint. The ambiguity of the scene allows for two interpretations. perhaps more forcefully. but by the time this was extended to women (as depicted in the nervous romance) it became synonymous with the ‘castrating’ liberated woman. Harry remains bound by his chronic Madonna/whore complex. his respect for Sally. cutting swiftly from Sally’s initial advances to an expression of post-coital rapture on her part and barely suppressed panic on his. as Sally backtracks on her earlier assertion regarding the essentially practical. in effect. as Harry subsequently accuses her of seducing him. Again. As Frank Krutnik . in which any trace of sexual assertiveness on the part of the female protagonist is presented as both deeply threatening to the male ego and an obstacle to the development of the heterosexual couple. The late 1950s/early 1960s sex-comedies presented the deregulation of sexuality as highly desirable for men.112 Postmodern Chick Flicks By this time Sally has outgrown her youthful narcissism. The split-screen phone conversation in which the couple are in bed. this is signified through references to Casablanca. Harry is now the object of a parallel sexual joke. in their first sexual encounter. in which Sally unconvincingly and unwittingly exposes her sexual insecurities to a stunned audience. the suggestion that it is Harry’s friendship with and. unable to contemplate friendship with Sally on anything other than a strictly platonic basis. For example. this aspect of the narrative is strongly reminiscent of the nervous romance. However. in which the increasingly worldly Sally’s intentional public disclosure serves to embarrass him. Again. yet it also allows both Sally and the audience a privileged insight into the psychical workings of the ‘wolfish’ male: a situation which generates much of the film’s subsequent humour. By contemporary standards the scene is unusually oblique. Firstly.
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points out, in the 1970s cycle the male celebration of promiscuity has ‘soured’: The breakdown of marriage is revealed to bring not plenitude but loss. Once the safety net of sanctioned monogamy has been pulled away, the emotionally vulnerable male protagonists of films such as Starting Over and Manhattan spend their time thrashing around in a bleak lonely landscape of insecurity and deprivation, to be saved in the nick of time by a woman whose own desires can be subordinated to that of their own. (Krutnik, 1990: 60) When Harry Met Sally’s post-feminist slant on previous cycles offers no such solution. The film differs from its most obvious generic reference points – the sex-comedy and the nervous romance – precisely in its attempts to move beyond the Madonna/whore division, and accommodate a feminist ethic of sexual self-definition within the more traditional, monogamy-orientated sex-comedy formula. Thus Harry’s immediate sexual rejection of Sally is followed by a series of humiliating efforts to retain their friendship and his final, impassioned, declaration of unconditional love. The generic learning process – which in previous cycles results in the submission of woman to the superior male wisdom – is heavily weighted in Sally’s favour. Or as Norman Denzin put it ‘Sally wins, friends can be lovers, lovers can be friends’ (Denzin, 1991: 119). Denzin viewed this as indicative of the text’s broader ideological agenda in which ‘Harry, punished for his sexual misdemeanours, surrenders his freedom, promiscuity and independence to the demands of marriage, family and home’ (Denzin, 1991: 119). Although Harry’s final submission was certainly compatible with Hollywood’s late 1980s neo-conservative impulse, to read the denouement solely in this light ignores the extent to which it challenges the androcentric bias of the two previous romantic comedy cycles. Harry’s promiscuity is problematised – pathologised even – less in defense of Reaganite ‘family values’ than its perceived degradation of women, a view articulated by female characters such as Sally. As such, it seems more informed by a feminist agenda than the Reaganite permissive backlash. Furthermore, the film’s ‘endorsement’ of marriage is also highly ambivalent. The climatic New Year’s Eve declaration is followed by a sharp change in tone as the couple plummet from the heightened emotional intensity and excitement of the party into the dull, sepia-tinted world of the old married couples. Accentuating this contrast, the expansive shot of the
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brightly lit ballroom cuts to the fixed camera and unflattering lighting which frame the final documentary interview. Far from celebrating heath and home, in a manner typical of the new postmodernist romantic comedy, the final interviews puncture the romance fantasy with a heavy dose of realism.
Women’s time and romantic destiny
In part, the fall from the ecstasy of romance to the reality of long-term marriage is an inevitable consequence of taking the story beyond its usual point of closure. Even in a form such as the romantic comedy, which tends to favour successful marital closure rather than heroic separation, this is generally anticipated rather than realised, perpetuating the belief in romantic fulfilment. Ephron’s next production, Sleepless in Seattle (Ephron, 1993), went much further in exploring the conventions of screen romance and its association with female viewers. If When Harry Met Sally’s key reference points are the nervous romance and the sex-comedy, Sleepless in Seattle’s ‘feminine’ preoccupation with magic, fate and metaphysical matchmaking are much closer to the traditional terrain of the woman’s film or romantic melodrama. Again, the film’s overbearing 1940s Harry Connick Junior score, its perpetual references to previous cinematic romances and self-conscious idealisation of ‘love in the movies’ serves to both eulogise and poke fun at classical Hollywood romance and its assumed association with sentimental female viewers. The film opens with the untimely death of Sam’s (Tom Hanks) wife, leaving an eight-year-old son, Jonah. Concerned for his emotionally repressed father, Jonah phones a national radio helpline and Sam is finally persuaded to confess everything to the voyeuristic radio shrink, impressing women the length and breadth of America with his display of heartfelt, new mannish candour. One of these women is the heroine, reporter Annie (Meg Ryan), who tunes in to the broadcast after returning from her parents’ house, having just announced her engagement to the ‘wrong partner’, Walter (Bill Pullman). Despite her impending marriage to the wealthy but dull Walter, Annie becomes increasingly obsessed with the anonymous caller; she exploits her professional contacts and access to classified computer records to finally track him down. Following a predictable series of misunderstandings, the star-crossed lovers do not actually meet until the last two minutes of the film in which we are encouraged to assume that Annie will take up the role of Sam’s new wife and substitute mother to the boy.
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From Sleepless in Seattle, 1993.
Clearly then, the plot is less concerned with narrating the lover’s courtship rituals than exploring Annie’s desire for Sam, which is articulated through the language of prior cinematic romance, particularly the fraught miscommunication between the protagonists of An Affair to Remember. Although Annie’s feelings are finally reciprocated, for the majority of the film Sam is busily going about his daily business, oblivious to her existence. In this respect, Sleepless in Seattle conforms to three of the central characteristics of the woman’s film. Firstly, it shows the excessive (verging on pathological) investment in the discourse of romantic love by the female protagonist. Secondly, it depicts this desire as that nourished by an overactive imagination and exacerbated by the ‘feminine’ inability to distinguish fact from fantasy (the film is saturated with references to screen romance and its centrality in the lives of women). Thirdly, it presents a conception of ‘woman’s time’ as fate or destiny as cyclical rather than historical. The later aspect of the woman’s film has been much discussed in relation to the 1940s and 1950s classical mode. Mary Ann Doane’s analysis of this period points out: The temporal modality necessitated by the discourse of the love story rests on the assumption that it is the woman who has the time to wait, the time to invest in love. A feminine relation to time in this context
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is defined in these terms – repetition, waiting, duration which resists any notion of progress. (Doane, 1987: 109) This aspect of Sleepless in Seattle was also noted by feminist cultural critic Suzanne Moore, who expressed concern regarding its influence on young female viewers, suggesting that the film was nothing less than ‘an instruction, albeit fictional, to trust their hearts and not their brains’ and ‘a cynical movie, a wised-up film pretending to be an innocent oldie’ (Moore, 1993: 18). This response to the film’s overt use of the fantasy frame overlooks the fact that it is the apparent ‘innocence’ of the ‘oldie’ that serves to conceal its ideological message, while the cynicism of the contemporary modes produces the opposite effect, problematising audience’s identification. Heroine Annie does succeed in getting her man, but Meg Ryan’s swooning, over-the-top performance ensures that she is also an object of (gentle) ridicule: a caricature of the impressionable female viewer. Indeed, one of the film’s main preoccupations is what Mary Ann Doane describes as the ‘despecularisation’ of the woman’s film – the inability to fetishise and objectify (to hold the cinematic object at a distance) that the patriarchal imaginary ascribes to the female viewer. Annie’s unshakeable faith in romantic destiny is thus closely aligned with her fascination with screen romance. The figure of the enraptured female viewer thus functions metonymically: a charming reminder of a lost moment of spectatorial innocence. As such, it serves less to re-inscribe such a position than to remind us that the modes of spectatorship are not only gendered, but historically contingent. This is particularly apparent in the scene in which Annie and her cynical sidekick, Becky (Rosie O’ Donnell), compose a letter to ‘Sleepless’ while watching An Affair to Remember. Presented as something of a feminine ritual, the afternoon movie rerun elicits a tearful response from both women. But only the unusually dizzy heroine is foolish enough to read her destiny in old Hollywood terms, lifting dialogue straight from the movie and inserting it into the letter. Annie’s weepy enthusiasm is therefore undercut by Becky’s pithy comments regarding the difference between actual relationships and love in the movies. If Sleepless in Seattle mocks the excessive pleasure attributed to the female viewer, it also highlights another, perhaps more central, feature of the classical Hollywood love story – the relation between absence and desire. In Sleepless in Seattle this convention is stretched almost to breaking point as face-to-face contact is delayed until the last two minutes of the film.
allowing the plot to focus solely on the desires of the female protagonist. Likewise. the running time given to conflict and misunderstanding far outstrips the brief moment in which rapport is (temporarily) achieved. providing the key to the continued popularity of the form. romantic love is the doomed project to recover what is lost in the acquisition of subjectivity: access to the Lacanian ‘real’ or the Freudian (M)other. As the subject’s very existence is premised on the intervention of the socio-symbolic order. the underlying motive of romance fiction is to offer an imaginary antidote to this depressing scenario. a proposition which goes some way towards explaining the fact that. 1992: 28). which. The imposition of the socio-symbolic order (via language) both splits the subject and allows it to come into being.Romantic Comedy and Female Spectatorship 117 The hero’s absence from or indifference to the heroine is a central characteristic of the 1940s woman’s film or romantic melodrama. language constructs sexual difference (and thus attraction) while also ensuring that there can be no genuine rapport – only mis-recognition – between the sexes. impossible. translucent computerised map. Such a model is useful in considering the popularity of all forms of romance. continually failing to make contact. and attempts its resolution. At root. For both sexes this takes the form of an attempt to circumvent the big Other (the socio-symbolic order) through achieving oneness with the other (the loved object). by definition. the dynamic of lack and fulfilment is the core element in any romance. cross-gender psychic pull. seems unusually preoccupied with the void between the central protagonists. As Lapsley and Westlake put it: ‘people do not fantasise about what they have got’ (Lapsley and Westlake. then. in that. it also provides the most convincing evidence of the absence of the sexual relation. Along with feminist approaches. In Lacanian terms. it organises the terms of heterosexual desire. the hero and heroine staring at the stars on opposite sides of the country or the recurring shots of the eerie. this solution can only be temporary. coast to coast. Given the impossibility of romantic fulfilment. From a Lacanian perspective. charting their movements back and forth. but it is especially helpful in understanding a film like Sleepless in Seattle. by foregrounding the desire for absolute oneness with the loved object the romance both reveals the impossibility of this desire. even by the standards of Hollywood romance. Lacanian approaches to romance are useful in explaining the persistence of this structuring logic and its unconscious significance for male and female viewers. in the majority of romances. something that Hollywood romance has always excelled at. . Paradoxically. As love stories go. the film has a peculiarly hollow feeling which is accentuated by its use of visual motifs. this is. and giving it an almost atavistic.
1988: 20). . but perhaps even because of them. The aching void at the centre of the romance fantasy (which might at other times have been filled by something as mundane as a letter) is now bridged by the phone-in chat show. Both films feature the prolonged miscommunication narrative featured in Sleepless in Seattle but the former substitutes email for the letter-based romance of the classical version. postmodernist allusions to past genre cycles can work as much to expose the ideological baggage of the previous forms as to unleash it on a new generation of unsuspecting (in this case. You’ve Got Mail contrasts the couples’ face-to-face niggles and bitterness with email rapprochement. Although When Harry Met Sally is so cinematically derivative that it is almost a pastiche of earlier . the only contact they have is that of Sam’s confessional radio broadcast and Annie’s pursuit of him via the internet. With the tagline ‘at odds in life . drawing new pleasures from old scenarios. overriding the political and economic conflicts between the protagonists. The obvious allusionism of Sleepless in Seattle (and its relationship to An Affair to Remember) is also apparent here as the film is essentially a remake of the 1940 Hollywood romance. the internet or the old Hollywood movie. as Anne Friedberg suggested. This postmodernist exaggeration of classical features parodies the preoccupations of the old Hollywood weepie. revealing their artifice. 1993: 189). not in spite of new technologies. This underlying dynamic was also apparent in Ephron’s next Ryan and Hanks production. The popularity of and critical response to the self-reflexive new romantic comedy raises important issues for feminist film analysis and critics of postmodernist cinema. in love on-line’. Beginning with the death of the mother (the origin of both fulfilment and lack) and finally ending with the reconstruction of the family unit. displacement and spatial dislocation associated with the (post) modern condition by reassuring us that true intimacy is still possible. Shop around the Corner directed by Ernst Lubitsch. female) viewers (Friedberg. Once again. Sleepless in Seattle attempts to ameliorate the alienation. Despite its comic allusions to earlier modes of female spectatorship. yet it also updates and re-articulates them. You’ve Got Mail (1998). of course. When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle demonstrate that.118 Postmodern Chick Flicks Aside from the closing moments. . the film thus manages to cling to the utopian dimension of popular romance. demonstrating the Baudrillardian view that ‘the most intimate processes of our lives become the feeding ground of the media’ (Baudrillard. anticipated rather than realised. far from being a cold and alienating form of communication (lacking the intimacy and personal touch of a letter) email provides the purest form of human contact. In Sleepless in Seattle these ‘superficial’ forms of communication function as the means for mobilising a deeper intimacy which is.
the singleton is able to support herself financially and generally has some form of ‘urban family’ to replace the more traditional nuclear model. This is often narratively justified by the heroine’s characterisation as an unusually idealist ‘old-fashioned’ girl. ‘blank parody’ (Jameson. Early critics of the genre viewed its reintroduction of the marital denouement as evidence of its patriarchal intentions. The play of distanciation and engagement within the new romance suggests that it offer a proactive critical feminine viewing position which is more in line with Carroll’s conception of the wised-up informed viewer of postmodernist cinema. the generic drive towards marriage appears increasingly irrational and anachronistic. nor should we expect them to. it is not. This produces an aesthetic mode which might be described as ‘romantic irony’. From allusionism to pastiche: Bridget Jones’s Diary and Down with Love By the end of the decade. in the manner particularly associated with the leading figures played by Meg Ryan in the 1990s. Similarly. Sleepless in Seattle’s direct intersplicing of old Hollywood alongside its humorous treatment of the susceptible female viewer adds a distancing frame to its celebration of old-fashioned romance. by allotting more sympathy and on-screen space to the female figure. As the desire to have children is rarely an aspect of the new woman’s cycle. the triumph of romantic comedy as the leading chick-flick genre was further emphasised by the success of Sharon Maguire’s filmic adaptation of Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001). but this has been absent from some later examples. 1984: 65) It is an artful amalgamation of nervous and sex-comedy motifs which. in Jameson’s terms. such as My Best Friend’s Wedding. 1998: 32) the emergence of the new romantic comedy as the predominant popular women’s form registers the cultural tensions between old expectations and new possibilities. But if the classical romantic melodrama or feminist identified ‘woman’s film’ registered ‘an unwholly amount of misery’ (Altman.Romantic Comedy and Female Spectatorship 119 modes. Generic cycles do not reflect social trends or dominant political ideologies in any direct form. a mode which is perfectly tailored to the preferred subject matter of these texts – the independent ‘wised-up’ late twenties early thirty-something woman’s search for love and romance on reasonably equitable terms. in which the heroine finally opts for single girl freedom and the companionship of a close gay friend. Given the . As these cycles indicate. generic forms are as much subject to and mediated through the force of their generic and fictional logic and conventions as by cultural and social shifts. exposes the androcentric bias of the two previous cycles.
it was also well received in the popular media. particularly its debt to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. wearing unglamorous underwear) and. Casting Colin Firth. Four Weddings and a Funeral than the Ephron/Ryan self-conscious Hollywood romances. classic story of misrecognition and misunderstanding is interwoven with the tension between fun. as does the film’s exaggeration of the rivalry between Darcy and Hugh Grant’s Cleaver (mirroring the conflict between Darcy and Wickham) that culminates in the fight scene in both of the Bridget Jones productions. such as Sleepless in Seattle. it was not surprisingly that the film proved an instant box-office success. She states: ‘Fielding’s comic irony does not deflect from the fact that the readers find fragments of themselves in Bridget Jones to the point where the BBC in 1998 staged a Bridget Jones night devoted to the “singleton”. more akin to Mike Newell’s smallbudget 1994 hit. as Mark Darcy foregrounds the Austen connection. the underlying. In her critique of the Bridget Jones phenomena. Compared to the earlier Hollywood new romantic comedies – particularly the Ephron/Ryan productions. Although ironic laddism and female-orientated romantic irony share a self-conscious. ‘The novel and other romantic comedies. Renee Zellweger’s willingness to emphasise the humiliating slapstick elements of the novel (appearing drunk with smudged make-up. freedom and independence and the desire for commitment and stability. Imelda Whelehan posits Bridget Jones as the flip side of the discourse of ironic laddism associated with British magazines such as Loaded in the 1990s.120 Postmodern Chick Flicks bestseller status of Fielding’s comic novel in the US and UK. strongly associated with his role as Mr Darcy in the popular Andrew Davies BBC production of Pride and Prejudice. in Hollywood terms. falling over. Bridget Jones’s Diary was perceived as a quirky. knowing address and preoccupation with . Once again. 2000: 139). but this should be distinguished from the more subtle interplay of social forces and individualism apparent in Fielding’s work. devoid of the glossy sentimentalism associated with the new cycle. unpretentious British film. Although it was backed by US money. displays under its comic layer a generation of single women desperate to find a man to the point of utter self-abnegation’ (Whelehan. uglify herself through weight gain set her performance apart from the kooky but more conventionally feminine Ryan or Julia Roberts. But like previous examples of the new femaleorientated cycle. and its broader association with the lifestyle and behaviour of the perceived new generation of female ‘singletons’. the film highlights the self-conscious aspects of Fielding’s work. Whelehan rightly highlights the manner in which the popular media appropriation of the Jones phenomena regards the character as media shorthand for single and desperate.
Both Sleepless in Seattle and Bridget Jones’s Diary also include self-conscious references to feminist debates about the perceived anti-feminist backlash and are self-aware concerning the media’s unfairly negative preoccupation with single women. for staying single longer. the sequel resorts to even more bizarre plot contrivances and an excessive use of slapstick to continue the story beyond the romantic comedy’s normal point of closure. rather than Mark. Whelehan underplays a key difference in their approach to feminism and pre-feminist conceptions of gender. Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (Kidron. a blatant celebration of the pre-feminist gender power order. within the. To add to this implausible scenario. but they also value their independence. one of the key features of romantic comedy across the decades. it is important to recognise that the ironic comedies of the 1990s did not invent the figure of the needy. but took up this pre-existing misogynist media stereotype and remythologised her as a more sympathetic figure for female audiences. versions of female success and failure offered within this framework. Bridget is depicted arrogantly dispensing advice to the Thai inmates by quoting Western romantic self-help manuals and . As many critics of the genre have pointed out. The importance of this female audience-friendly closure is emphasised by its absence in more conservative and overtly farcical film sequel to Fielding’s bestseller. Looking at women’s texts in relation to the early 1990s backlash debates. and particularly from the late 1980s onwards. career achievements and friendship networks. the heroines of such texts tend to be rewarded. As Mark Darcy has already wholeheartedly committed to Bridget in the previous film. Furthermore. they are thus clearly ‘post’ rather than anachronistically pre-feminist. rather than punished. is the male protagonist’s final acceptance of the superior wisdom of the female figure and what are coded as ‘feminine’ values. single woman. the film’s crude attempts to draw humour from the heroine’s confinement in a Thai prison (wrongly convicted of drug trafficking) are clumsy and ethnocentric. female-orientated popular forms are clearly shaped and influenced by feminist concerns. Bridget is depicted as neurotically and unnecessarily jealous of one of Mark’s female colleagues. admittedly limited. They inevitably find the perfect partner who values them all the more for retaining their independence and spirit. the colleague’s attachment to the couple turns out to be motivated by an infatuation with Bridget herself. Similarly. In order to drag out romantic misunderstanding. Ironic laddism is an outright rejection of feminist politics. insecure. Conversely.Romantic Comedy and Female Spectatorship 121 past cultural forms. Figures such as When Harry Met Sally’s Sally Albright or Bridget Jones may be ambivalent about their singleton status. 2004).
The Bridget Jones brand depends on audience identification with a plucky. which combines a relatively naturalistic vision of the modern urban lifestyle of young. Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason thus abandons the crucial tension between the longing for love and commitment and the desire for a prolonged. slipping too far towards postmodern playfulness to connect with the emotional and political concerns of the contemporary female audience. and beyond the normal closure point of female triumph. In the final section of this chapter. I want to return to Peyton Reed’s 2003 self-conscious romantic comedy. unlike the first Jones adaptation. professional single women with the conventional nineteenth-century society romance plot. irrepressible victim of gender inequality.122 Postmodern Chick Flicks trading her wonderbra. irresponsible youth that has been at the heart of the most successful new romantic comedies. a film that perhaps more forcefully indicates both the cycle’s gradual abandonment of naturalistic elements and its descent into what Jameson described as ‘blank parody’ (Jameson. Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason does indeed depict the white middleclass thirty-something female singleton as. 1984: 1965). This scene in particular serves only to emphasise the cycle’s historical and cultural dependence on the singles culture of wealthy urban centres. Pillow Talk. Down with Love (mentioned briefly in the introduction). If Maguire’s adaptation of Fielding’s novel somewhat downplays the heroine’s ambivalence towards marriage. Placing this figure in the context of more overtly disadvantaged women. As this tension provides much of the cycle’s humour and interest. Edge of Reason’s implausible ‘carry-on’ knockabout style severs the connection with contemporary social and cultural attitudes. the film falls back on slapstick. Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason enjoyed widespread commercial success in the US and Europe on the back of the original’s success. Like When Harry Met Sally. shallow and annoyingly selfobsessed. interiors and star gestures and mannerisms directly from the Rock Hudson and Doris Day classic. the film may be indicative of the cycle’s exhaustion. in Beebon Kidron’s sequel any residual resistance to conventional female roles is virtually eliminated altogether: Bridget is just downright desperate. farce and a loud and a continuous and intrusive pop soundtrack to retain audience’s interest. more innovative use of . such as first-world women prisoners in the developing world. taken beyond its usual geographical and cultural limits. In this sense. its homage-style borrows plot structure. The treatment of prior generic references also emphasises the differences between the earlier. drastically undermines her status as lovable underdog. Down with Love owes much to the 1960s sexcomedy. However. indeed. In a more general sense.
Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor). in which the scheming. the film’s depiction of women would be more patronising than its 1960s original. It also introduces contemporary elements such the new professional woman. Reiner and Ephron’s reworking of the sex-comedy combines it with the self-doubt and urban cynicism of the 1970s mode. The gender divide is heavily emphasised throughout by clothing. the growth of the media-based occupations and the 1980s lifestyle preoccupation with food and restaurants as signifiers of contemporary class and taste. Barbara Novak (Renee Zellweger) – a stylish and highly stylised amalgamation of blonde ‘ice-queens’ Doris Day and Kim Novak – pretends to be a ‘down with love girl’ to finally ‘catch’ Catcher by distinguishing herself from his many disposable girlfriends. hers a mix of pastels and fluffy furnishings. Barbara and Catcher’s split-screen phone conversation places them . Rather than shifting between distanciation and engagement.Romantic Comedy and Female Spectatorship 123 former styles and the latter’s more overtly nostalgic. career-orientated ‘down with love’ girl. in which Doris Day is sassy and self-composed prior to her encounter with Brad Allen (Rock Hudson). Down with Love’s heightened reproduction of early ‘sixtiesness’ is hermetically sealed. As in When Harry Met Sally (and previous sex-comedies) the key characters’ symbolic function as proud representatives of the values of their sex is also emphasised by the presence of less assertive friend whose own gender identification is much less secure. Conversely. despite its many references to nervous and sex-comedy conventions. a humorous remnant of past cultural forms. music and apartment interiors – his brown. backward looking approach. The addition of these zeigeist elements gives the film a contemporary feel. it moves wholly towards distanciation and the sterile. is a mix of James Bondstyle macho antics and Rock Hudson playboy charm and duplicity. Indeed. the film incorporates feminist critiques of patriarchal behaviour and assumptions. For example. desperate Novak actually does blossom into an independent. The film’s tongue-in-cheek gender politics are articulated through clichéd images of filmic 1960s masculinity and femininity. Sexual politics is thus presented as very much part of the film’s time-capsule politics and attitudes. wood-panelled and full of gadgets. More significantly. if it was not for the final plot twist. but its retrospective view of the period is signalled less by the integration of a post-feminist awareness and attitudes than by its relentless parade of iconic 1960s style items and a post-permissive inclusion of overt sexual references. The film does include the now generically familiar triumph of the female protagonist. parodying the suggestive split-screen bath conversation between Doris Day and Rock Hudson. ironic appreciation of frozen images of the past. Leading male.
thus relatively soon after the attacks on the World Trade Center. Novak’s awed gaze immediately alights on both the Empire State and the United Nations. which feature a 1960s-style animated New York skyline. As in Pillow Talk. Down with Love’s hyperreal depiction of tall buildings against clear blue skies. Replicating the visual landscape of the 1960s sex-comedy. Thematically also. after striding out of Grand Central station. even stimulating oral sex. For example. The scene then shifts to Novak’s frustrated attempts to squeeze into a skyscraper elevator. 2005) that have been viewed as covertly registering the tragedy and its effect on the Western psyche. the film uses studio backlots and sophisticated new digital matting techniques to construct its highly stylised and idealised vision of New York. in the opening sequence. From its opening credits sequence. the year 1962’. While the film pokes fun at a crassly drawn notion of women’s liberation and pre-permissive sexual innocence. the two central protagonists are low-born hicks from out-of-town. 2004) or War of the Worlds (Spielberg. who collapse with aped terror at the sound of a firing exhaust pipe. . Made in 2002 (released in 2003). she also witnesses a group of comically dressed ‘ban-thebomb’ protesters. Novak then hails a cab from outside the United Nations building. an inability to engage with the present is apposite in thinking through the film’s glowing representation of early 1960s New York. Jameson’s view of the nostalgia film as a form of cultural denial. to the opening shot of Manhattan with the upbeat voice over ‘the place is Manhattan. its global status and significance underlined by a procession of international flags. we are left in no doubt that the film is a celebration of dynamic US capitalism. neither of which are actually visible from this vantage point.124 Postmodern Chick Flicks directly on top of one another. Down with Love is as much of a post 9/11 film as the many disaster movies – such as The Day After Tomorrow (Emmerich. Perhaps more significantly. Down With Love’s blatantly nostalgic evocation of the post-war long boom is symbolised by Manhattan in the early 1960s. Manhattan is presented as egalitarian place of opportunity for bright. Mirroring his 1960s prototype. ambitious and hard-working newcomers. the attention given to the United Nations headquarters and the Empire State building (Manhattan’s key global landmark prior to the completion of the World Trade Center in the 1970s) and the comic explosion cannot fail to evoke the more recent images of destruction. its nostalgic vision of 1960s New York is in stark contrast to more familiar contemporary images. even to the point of tampering with well-known city locations. to Novak’s first impressions of the city. followed by a mutual cigarette.
as a form that can engage innovatively with the past and the present. success and material self-sufficiency are no longer a male preserve. Desperate Housewives. more recently. Using the Rick Altman model of genre repacking and generic evolution. it seems likely that this particular cycle. misogynistic culture of Islamic fundamentalism. the pleasure and popularity of the form arose from its ability to balance a ‘post’-feminist awareness of the dangers of the romance fantasy and the importance of economic and social independence with the underlying cross-gender drive towards emotional and sexual fulfilment. at its best. The possibility of self-advancement is also open to women despite their greater disadvantages.Romantic Comedy and Female Spectatorship 125 Catcher. such as Sex and the City and. a nostalgic counter-image to the perceived threat of the closed. popular women-orientated television shows. . In its symbolic use of New York City. The new romantic comedy’s more enduring features – such as its particular blend of romance and irony and the creation of feisty ‘post’-feminist heroines – suggest that. But the legacy of the new romantic comedy is also apparent in other forms and genres. Down with Love projects an idealised vision of a burgeoning meritocratic post-war America. For example. accrues the respect of his high-born but neurotic sidekick. The film’s hyperreal nostalgia thus denies both the ongoing struggle for gender and class equality in prosperous Western societies and the crisis of national and global identity produced by 9/11. is showing signs of imminent extinction. As Novak’s best-selling novel and global fame indicate. the self-made man. integrate the self-consciousness of the cycle with sharp appreciation of contemporary social and sexual mores.
foregrounding the instability of language and the inevitable process of narrativisation which raw historical material must undergo in order to create a logical historical account. The shaky boundary between history and fiction has also been the preferred subject matter of numerous acclaimed ‘postmodernist’ literary texts. or desirable. interrogating and drawing attention to the narrativising process. Angela Carter. contributed to a growing cultural suspicion that historical truth claims have tended to serve the interests of the powerful. Slaughterhouse Five (1970). in the context of postmodern culture’s ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ (Lyotard. Historiography and Women’s History From the early 1980s onwards.4 Costume Drama. For example. 1989: xxiv). 1977) – along with the post-1968 growth of academic interest in counter-cultural histories (women’s. black and gay). silencing other voices and experiences. 1973. Foucault’s analysis of knowledge–power relations and histories of marginal subjects – such as criminals or the insane (Foucault. Salman Rushdie. much of the academic critical debate on postmodernist aesthetic practices has been concerned with the question of historical representation and whether objective and meaningful engagement with the past is possible. Umberto Eco. linguistics and semiotics also cast doubt upon notions of historical authenticity. Poststructuralist approaches. Jeanette Winterson and Graham Swift have produced novels which blend the biographical and subjective and/or supernatural and mythological with more traditional accounts of significant historical events. Vonnegut’s ‘classic’ postmodernist novel. The lighter generic framework does not mitigate 126 . Writers such as Kurt Vonnegut. integrates an account of the Dresden bombings with a spoof pulp sci-fi narrative. While Lyotard’s discussion of metanarratives drew attention to the fictionalising process underlying the grand narrative of Western historical progress and cultural superiority.
authorship and authority. rapidly crystalising around the issue of the popular nostalgia film. Fredric Jameson’s account of postmodernism and culture was the first widely circulated account of the relationship between the socio-economic conditions of postmodern culture and the emergence – within popular cinema – of what he refers to as ‘the nostalgia film’ or ‘la mode rétro’ (Jameson. by doing so.Costume Drama. 1982). the issue of who gets to tell the story from what perspective and why. historical events. Jameson and Carroll both drew attention to the way in which the nostalgia film’s references to the past are both self-conscious (with a heightened attention to ‘rétro’ features. (Hutcheon. Historiography and Women’s History 127 the shocking impact of the novel’s wartime events but rather serves to emphasise the problem of recounting. such as cars. and paying homage to the work of ‘classical’ Hollywood directors (Carroll. he describes it as ‘an alarming and pathological symptom of a society incapable of dealing with time and history’ (Jameson. but debates on postmodern cinema took a different turn. and thus brings with it questions of point of view. Although critics such as Carroll had already drawn academic attention to the work of the new crop of ‘bratpack’ film directors and their preference for revisiting. 1988: 124) Historiographic metafictions became a significant strand of what was critically regarded as postmodernist fictional practice. And it is a kind of seriously ironic parody that often enables this contradictory doubleness: the intertexts of history and fiction take on parallel status in the parodic reworking of the textual past of both ‘world’ and ‘history’. Jameson argued that the most significant aspect of this newly emerging cinematic form was its preference for stylised depictions of history and the assumption of audience pleasure in recognising classical cinematic references and generic codes over and above serious attempts to make sense of. Literary critic Linda Hutcheon describes such novels as ‘historiographic metafictions’ stating: Historiographic metafictions situate themselves within historical discourse. and. furniture and clothes) and . 1987: 116). or analyse. Such texts do not abandon the notion of significant past events or actual deeds done but continually remind us that all historical knowledge is ‘textual’. attempts to make sense of such overwhelming and unimaginable horror. 1987: 117). while refusing to surrender their autonomy as fiction. Viewing the nostalgia mode as a hermetically sealed form referring only to Hollywood’s own generically coded version of its classical past.
Nixon (Stone. self-conscious generic reworkings inevitably bear traces of the cultural and social circumstances from which they emerged. Popular reworkings of well-known genres can foreground older discourses of romance and femininity while also highlighting Hollywood’s own role in creating these (such as the idea of the susceptible female viewer in Sleepless in Seattle). yet this level of filmic self-consciousness is also what allows for the critique of prior modes of sexual difference registered in femaleorientated genre reworkings such as the early 1990s gothic melodrama. 1995) and The Hurricane (Jewison. 2000) articulated that the nostalgic appreciation and celebration of older genres was at least partially motivated by the desire to return to the ‘intensely polarised gender roles’ associated with them (Creed. Alison Butler (Creed. 1987. less for its abandonment of attempts at historical authenticity than for the aforementioned suspicion. Critics such as Barbara Creed. the emergence of a postmodernist cinema defined through its playful inclusion of past styles and genre conventions has not been accompanied by a popular cinematic retreat from films which attempt to lay claim to the past in a unified (in that they deal with one specified time frame) or direct manner. 1992. in that the nostalgia film is nominally set in the present. The emergence of women’s film genres that playfully and self-consciously implement prior cinematic codes and conventions to undercut. In particular. 1987: 57). Patricia Mellencamp and. Hollywood’s preoccupation with twentieth-century American history is registered in forms such as the ‘bio-pic’ – Chaplin (Attenborough. Taubin. Butler. Mellencamp. 1999) which blend the high-profile biographies of political and cultural icons with the depiction of wider social and .128 Postmodern Chick Flicks covert. As Creed argues. Sleeping with the Enemy. For some feminist critics the desire to revisit old genres also seemed deeply troubling. When Harry Met Sally. Moreover. 1995. more recently. Amy Taubin. 1992). 1992). Malcolm X (Lee. a mish-mash of coded historical styles which failed either to engage with their own time or reflect critically on the past cultural forms they evoked. the patriarchal logic of their antecedents points to the inadequacy of a debate which is framed only in terms of postmodernist cinema as an aesthetic mode which either fails to engage with the past in any meaningful way or does so only in order to haul the generically based androcentrism associated with certain past styles back into the domain of popular contemporary cinematic representation. rather than reinforce. In short. or the reworked nervous romance and sexcomedy. the nostalgia film’s interest in the past was condemned as all style and no substance.
M. film scholars such as Andrew Higson (Higson. this chapter will consider a more overtly historically based filmic form associated with the female audience which was more consistently popular throughout the 1990s: the costume drama. The Joy Luck Club (Wang. . Like the bio-pic. I will argue that the genre provided some of the most innovative examples of both a self-consciously politicised feminist/postmodernist filmic practice and a cinematic version of historiographic metafiction. 1991). Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) and Stephen Daldry’s The Hours (2001). impoverished masses. 1995) in which emotional bonds are created through the telling (and showing) of women’s life histories. How to Make an American Quilt (Moorhouse. their engagement with the past also corresponds to wider postmodernist approaches to history – and the critique of ‘macro’ historical ‘masternarratives’ – in that memory and subjective experience is central to their depiction of historical forces and events. the costume drama has been accused of privileging style over substance and historical authenticity. sentimentalised. films such as Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café (Avnet. The heritage debate and recent costume drama Like the popular Hollywood ‘nostalgia film’. this wider cultural preoccupation with the past is also registered in female-orientated forms such as the female friendship movie: for example. Historiography and Women’s History 129 cultural movements. However. Forster’s A Room with a View (Ivory. class-bound version of Edwardian and Victorian England that fails to acknowledge the historical experience of the struggling. 1995) or Now and Then (Glatter. 1993). Critically connected by the increasingly derogatory use of term ‘heritage’ film. While Jameson derided the Hollywood nostalgia film as a mishmash of self-referential generic codes that failed to engage with broader historical forces. the (usually British) costume drama has been castigated for peddling a sumptuous. 1993) argued that the rising popularity of lavish British productions such as Merchant Ivory’s adaptation of E.1 Focusing particularly on Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992).Costume Drama. The chapter will then assess the cycle’s ability to straddle the mainstream/art-house cinematic divide and – referring back to some of the issues concerning the broader political and cultural implications of a ‘postmodernist’ feminist practice raised in the opening chapter – re-situate a feminist interest in women’s historical experience in relation to other subjectivities and forms of historical oppression. 1981) coincided with the cultural triumph of an elitist. 1985) or Chariots of Fire (Hudson. In the sphere of women’s genres.
coded with. Howard’s End (Ivory. or fashion) as an authentic reproduction of the original. (Higson. Most of them are set for at least part of the time in the sorts of buildings and landscapes which are now conserved by bodies such as the National Trust and English Heritage. In a later piece Higson describes the British ‘heritage’ film in the following way: Many heritage films are adaptations of novels and plays which already have some sort of classic status. . and these settings are generally inhabited by familiar aristocratic English types and the values and lifestyles they bring with them . One of the key terms which validates these films is authenticity – the desire to establish the adaptation of the heritage property (whether conceived as historical period. The contempt reserved for it in some critical quarters seems closely connected with its feminine preoccupation with clothing and interiors and its inclusion of ‘effeminate’ male types. 1995: 27) In Higson’s analysis the heritage film pursues surface authenticity (of costume and decor) at the price of a deeper authenticity. Maurice (Ivory. Yet. ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ or. to put it another way. personage.130 Postmodern Chick Flicks conservative. the costume drama or heritage film’s preoccupation with stately homes and the historically repressed sexuality of the English upper classes is also a frequent subject of satire and ridicule. . 1987) and Carrington (Ivory. 1992). In the popular (British) media. as eye candy for female audiences. play. the costume drama/heritage film also provides an important generic space in which the concerns of women are championed and wider issues of sexual identity are addressed. which could encompass broader social and historical forces and engage with the experience of the masses rather than the elite. as academics such as Claire Monk (1994: 33) and Pam Cook (2005) have argued. decor. The sneering response of some critics to the overt sexualisation of Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy in the BBC production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (and his subsequent elevation to big screen star status through his associated role in Bridget Jones’s Diary) suggests a discomfort with the genre’s registration of female desire. middle-class value system in the 1980s and 1990s which re-imaged and idealised the British past free of class conflict and political dissent. novel. 1995) (films in which either female or . The costume drama is one of the few genres in which male actors are to use Laura Mulvey’s famous phrase.2 Citing films such as A Room with a View. building.
Avant-garde showbusiness This feminist-influenced manifestation of popular costume drama has much in common with postmodernist/feminist approaches to history . which is roughly two parts costume drama to one part action movie featured rebellious Edwardian heroine. costume drama has moved further away from the quest for surface ‘authenticity’ identified by Higson towards the exploration of historical conceptions of sexuality and sexual difference. women’s restrictive social conditions and plucky heroines valiantly resisting oppression. In John Madden’s playful Shakespeare in Love (1999) a noblewoman crossdresses her way to the Globe stage. 1998) – knowingly shuns attempts at literary-based authenticity in favour of scenes of explicit sexuality and the inclusion of a strong lesbian attraction between heroine Fanny Price and Austen’s villain. Historiography and Women’s History 131 homosexual desire is set against oppressive social expectations and attitudes) Claire Monk points out: What most unites the post-heritage film is undoubtedly an overt concern with sexuality and gender. Mary Crawford.Costume Drama. ambiguous . 1995) and Joe Wright’s more recent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (2005) have offered a feminist-inspired take on nineteenth-century classics – foregrounding sisterly love. . (Monk. androgynous. Rose (Kate Winslet) performing strenuous physical feats in order to rescue her lover. from the 1990s onwards filmic adaptations of Jane Austen novels such as Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (Lee. In a more general sense. . the transgressive sexual politics of the post-heritage film places it in genuine opposition to a 1990s Hollywood defined mainstream. while Patricia Rozema’s adaptation of what is generally regarded as one of Austen’s more conservative novels – Mansfield Park (Rozema. non-masculine. Ang Lee’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility tweaked the novel in order to strengthen the female characters and place the sisters’ relationship at its heart. For example. For example. the ‘Hollywood defined mainstream’ has also been strongly influenced by the late 1980s/1990s British costume drama’s emphasis on women’s historical experience and feminine desire. mutable. The heroine’s final rescue from the icy water is also justified and celebrated in terms of her ability to bring the spirit of new womanhood into the new century. particularly non-dominant gender and sexual identities: feminine. 1998). finally achieving public recognition and acclaim. Even James Cameron’s 1998 blockbuster Titanic (Cameron. 1995: 33) However.
132 Postmodern Chick Flicks in other fields of cultural production. but this is achieved through the more obvious . 1992: 279) – was both a critical and commercial hit. Sam Neill and Holly Hunter for The Piano. in the case of Orlando). In contrast. costume and interiors. the film’s widespread appeal and anOscar (the first for a female director) elevated her. the historical critique of gender roles is also emphasised throughout. Similarly. 1990) had already secured the services of Hollywood stars such as Harvey Keitel. with its increasing emphasis on historical conceptions of female identity and desire. Austen adaptations) and the innovative use of costume and interior in the films of ‘auteurs’ such as Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman (Pidduck. are texts that exemplify a particular moment of anti-pleasure. at least temporarily. Orlando – which Potter herself described as ‘avant-garde showbusiness’ (Florence. such as literary historiographic metafiction. Yet one of the more interesting aspects of films such as The Piano. Rather than creating an alternative (anti-populist) mode of costume drama. Orlando and The Piano were also ‘cross-over’ successes for female directors previously associated with small budget. to the Hollywood A list. traditional ‘bad’ costume drama (Merchant Ivory productions. 1989) and An Angel at My Table (Campion. provided an important cultural context for the reception of more experimental postmodernist costume and period dramas such as Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992) and Stephen Daldry’s The Hours (2001). Potter’s previous productions. avantgardist feminist filmmaking. Orlando and The Hours is their amalgamation of art-house cinematography and the inclusion of anti-realist devices with a more generically conventional concern with romance. 1997). the growing popularity of the costume drama. The presence of self-consciously feminist directors working in the mainstream. It is not uncommon for critics to draw a distinction between a conservative. Thriller (1979) and The Golddiggers (1983). while Campion’s moderate success with small-budget productions such as Sweetie (Campion. While the 1980s/early 1990s Merchant Ivory productions did not specifically emphasise gender issues. In Daldry’s adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s complex postmodernist novel The Hours. indicates the way in which the boundaries between popular and ‘feminist’ cinema are becoming increasingly blurred. films such as Orlando and The Piano bring to the surface the form’s potential ability to mount a critique of historical gender/power relations and to address the cultural construction of gender and sexual identity – particularly its limitations and constraints – within a given time frame (or frames. experimental cinema. within what are generally regarded as traditional women’s genres.
it featured wellestablished Hollywood stars. As the work of self-consciously pro-feminist directors using ‘postmodernist’ aesthetic strategies. 1990) is its superior capacity to recognise and respect other subjectivities and forms of oppression. feminist literary criticism successfully debunked the liberal humanist readings of authors such as Jane Austen. As I argued in Chapter 1. . The Piano and The Hours also provide important textual frameworks for considering the strengths and limitations of postmodernist/feminist cinematic practice and.Costume Drama. securing an Oscar and conferring gravitas on Nicole Kidman. for assessing its ability to foreground points of commonality with other oppressed groups within a popular female-orientated form. Despite its dourer tone and lack of conventional romance. critical costume drama epitomised by Potter’s Orlando. with the inclusion of a contemporary narrative. suggesting that generic expectations have shifted towards the mainstream acceptance of a more interrogative mode of period drama. This is significant given the long-standing association of the form with both woman readers and feminist critics. films such as Orlando. The contrast in the mood and atmosphere of the two texts is closely related to their literary frame of reference. while Campion’s key reference is the perennial favourite of women readers – the nineteenth-century female-authored romance novel. Potter’s starting point is Woolf’s cerebral modernist classic. Historiography and Women’s History 133 device of cutting between contrasting periods and social contexts. George Eliot and the Brontes and reinvented them as proto-feminist writers dealing explicitly with feminine themes and experiences. costume drama and the nineteenth-century novel Campion’s The Piano returns to the familiar models through which historical modes of femininity have been addressed in the popular imagination – the historical romance and costume drama – and reworks and revises them in the light of late twentieth-century feminist critiques of these genres. one of the perceived advantages of a postmodernist feminism (suggested by critics such as Linda Nicholson. Metafictionalising the feminist ‘canon’ – The Piano. Yet it also departs from the ‘genteel’ mode of experimental. given the prior criticisms of ‘heritage’ cinema. The Hours was also a commercial and critical success. The Piano could not be further away from the earlier modes of Brechtian counter-cinema favoured by feminist filmmakers in the 1970s. Retaining the affective intensity associated with these forms. Like The Piano. sexually charged forms – such as the recent remake of Pride and Prejudice. alongside the more upbeat.
among other novels.134 Postmodern Chick Flicks The nineteenth-century realist novel has also provided a rich source of material for historiographic. but rather than operate comparatively through two temporal planes – in the manner of Possession or the filmic version of John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1971) – it seamlessly integrates contemporary (feminist) critiques of the nineteenth-century gothic melodrama into its mid-nineteenth-century landscape. I have enjoyed writing characters who don’t have a twentieth-century sensibility about sex. Campion herself explicitly refers to the nineteenthcentury romance stating: I feel a kinship between the kind of romance that Emily Brontë portrays in ‘Wuthering Heights’ and this film. The film bears traces of. This enhances both her status as a slightly . My exploration can be a lot more sexual. a lot more investigative of the powers of eroticism. amalgamating the best-known tropes of nineteenth-century gothic. allowing certain repressed aspects of the original to come to the surface. sympathetic heroine. I wanted to respond to these ideas in my own century. 1993: 7) The Piano retains many of the key features associated with the femaleauthored nineteenth-century romance – such as a powerful. it’s very harsh and extreme. it seems appropriate that The Piano was followed by the publication of a novel tie-in. Byatt’s Possession (1991). (Bruzzi. while still retaining the emotional intensity associated with the form. a gothic exploration of the romantic impulse. Hers is not the notion of romance we’ve come to use. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. One of the key devices by which this is achieved is through Ada’s (Holly Hunter) mysterious silence. an empathic landscape and an interest in sexual constraints – without sliding into pastiche or crude ‘feminist’ didacticism. Charlotte Gilman Perkins’s The Yellow Wallpaper. historical romance and melodrama. metafictional reworkings by twentiethcentury feminist novels such as in A. The Piano is the perfect nineteenth-century novel that never was. My not writing in Brontë’s time means that I can look at a side of the relationship that she could not develop. rather than the more usual screenplay. reflecting the film’s status as a ‘quality’ production and trading on its relationship to highbrow nineteenth-century classic literature as well as its cinematic roots in costume drama and historical romance. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (1996) or Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith (2002). For all these reasons. The Piano has much in common with these literary metafictions and works through a similar revisionist logic. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss. S.
sprite-like figure (reminiscent of the equally ‘stunted’ and strangely powerful Jane Eyre) and avoids the problem of giving too direct a focus to Ada’s social and sexual repression. Flora. Stewart and Baines also suggests a self-conscious use of Freudian and Lacanian concepts and images. Historiography and Women’s History 135 uncanny.Costume Drama. of course. the ocean bed and. The derogatory use of the term ‘bodice ripper’ to refer . dark forest. rather than subservient to. providing the perfect vehicle for expressing the silent Ada’s fluctuating emotions. the initial symbiotic. As in Orlando. the addition of a female offspring (as in Orlando) suggests a conscious ‘revisioning’ of the form in which maternal feeling is presented as being in competition with. Flora. Rather than simply idealising the mother–daughter relationship. heterosexual attraction. it is woven into the film’s metalinguistic use of symbols and images. thus producing the outburst of violence towards Ada as Stewart discovers the affair. The Piano’s depiction of the ‘family romance’ in the complex relations between Ada. The film’s knowing use of psychoanalytic tropes (such as voyeurism and fetishism) is particularly apparent in its depiction of clothing and sexuality. through her association with the symbolic piano itself. While Michael Nyman’s score clearly belongs to the late twentieth century (period music is used largely for comic effect.3 The range of symbolic and metaphorical meanings which the film generates draws on the nineteenth-century novel’s interest in the relationship between the natural and supernatural while also suggesting the more self-conscious poststructuralist association of ‘woman’ with the pre-linguistic (pre-oedipal) realm celebrated by theorists such as Lucy Irigary (1993). Ada’s emotions are suggested through overhead shots of the lush. This is particularly evident in the relationship between Ada and her double-in-miniature daughter. If Ada spoke it would be tempting to award her with an anachronistically late twentieth-century feminist consciousness: her silence can hint at this through the more generically appropriate means of association. non-linguistic sensual bond between Ada and Flora is disrupted by the daughter’s growing attachment to her stepfather and jealous hatred of rival Baines. or Ada’s initial attempts to repel Baines with her aggressive playing). As nineteenth-century heroines are rarely mothers. the mother–daughter bond is suggested through the use of identical costumes and close physical proximity (conflict between Ada and Flora is also signified through their adoption of non-identical clothing). such as Morag’s demand for a waltz to cheer up the brooding central characters. One of the criticisms often levelled at costume drama is that its preoccupation with costume and visual display takes precedence over a deeper engagement with the past.
1995: 261). From the outset. In her discussion of the film’s use of costume. but an overt. voluminous skirts gives her a slightly sinister. The Piano’s use of sartorial signification is more varied and ambivalent. other-wordly. full-scale exploration of the erotic and intellectual (that is. reinforcing his persona as a man ill at ease with his body) (Bruzzi. the film can also move beyond suggestion into the actual depiction of Baines and Ada’s sexual encounter. body-contorting Victorian and Edwardian clothing is used to titillate and fetishise within (usually literary) popular historical romance. Perhaps more importantly. .136 Postmodern Chick Flicks to popular women’s historical romance highlights the popular critical assumption that uncomfortable. or Baines’s fetishistic caress of the piano in Ada’s absence recur throughout the film. brooding presence. yet The Piano exploits the current fascination with Victorian sexual repression to maximum effect. However. Stella Bruzi describes Ada and Flora as ‘dwarfish dolls’. the film is self-consciously preoccupied with scopophilia. symbolic) potential of sexual repression linked to the striptease and an undisguised fascination with Victorian underwear. their clothes appearing slightly too large for their slender bodies (just as Stewart’s clothes were deliberately cut on the small side. What prevents the scenes in which Baines and Ada act out their striptease bargain over the piano keys. fetishism and voyeurism in the character’s relations to each other and the viewer’s relation to the text. Baines appearing naked to Ada from behind the curtain in his hut. Scenes which play on the alternate exposure and concealment of the body and sexuality such as Baines’s discovery of the hole in the stocking. But the film’s use of clothing is also closely bound to its depiction of nineteenth-century sexuality and its interest in psychoanalytic concepts. Campion rather disingenously highlights the film’s pre-permissive attitudes towards this subject. even this scene ‘perversely’ cuts between indoor shots of the couple and Stewart’s observation of them from the crack in the wood. from appearing prurient or exploitative is not an ‘innocent’ pre-permissive avoidance of a fetishism. Although Ada’s hooped skirts and starchy bonnet seem cumbersome and ungainly when trudging through the wet mud or climbing out of the boat in the opening scene. the contrast between Ada’s pallid complexion and her dark. Stewart’s observation of Baines and Ada having sex. As a contemporary re-visioning of the nineteenth-century novel. adding both ‘weight’ and depth to her silent. the crinoline also provides shelter for Ada and Flora during their night on the beach and prevents Stewart from getting underneath Ada’s skirt in the attempted rape scene. appearance. or in which Baines touches Ada’s leg through the hole in her stocking.
seeming almost in awe of her sexual power. What is also interesting about the scene is that far from shoring up Stewart’s position as masterful. objectifying male (in the manner of early film theory) or producing an outburst of masculine fury. The Piano thus works as historiographic metafiction. punitive husband prefigured in the Scottish community’s little production of the ‘Bluebeard’ myth. it might be more useful to consider the film less as an exploration of nineteenth-century sexuality per se than an exploration of nineteenth-century sexuality via certain themes. Historiography and Women’s History 137 Stewart’s obvious voyeurism is ambivalent in its effect. . images and motifs associated with classic female-authored nineteenth-century literature. It is when Stewart is unable to access or share in this that he becomes the angry. such as the ‘Bluebeard’ production. The Piano has also been accused of privileging gender over colonial oppression. of perpetuating racist stereotypes (in its depiction of the Maoris) and reducing the lower-class Scottish female characters to comic caricatures (Dyson. 1995). Ada is finally able to ‘choose life’ and to relinquish the self-destructive impulses of the romantic heroine in favour of speech and a comfortable life with Baines. This does not diminish the importance of the issues raised by Dyson concerning the text’s articulation of race and gender but does situate these issues in relation to the film’s overall attempt to both evoke and rework the panorama of class/gender/race relations associated with the nineteenth-century novel. The Piano and ‘Brontësque’ otherness The film’s postmodernist reworking of the female-authored nineteenthcentury novel manages to draw out the proto-feminist subtext common to many ‘classics’ while still retaining the moral complexity of the central characters: Stewart is not simply dismissed as an incorrigible misogynist but appears equally tortured by his own inability to ‘reach’ his wife in the way that Baines does. revising and reworking aspects of nineteenth-century-based costume drama and drawing attention to its own construction through the self-consciousness of these references and the inclusion of metafictional scenes. Given its metafictional ‘Brontësque’ qualities. Stewart becomes dimly aware of Ada as an autonomous subject. Linda Dyson argued: ‘the critical acclaim surrounding the film constructed The Piano as a feminist exploration of nineteenth century sexuality and tended to ignore the way in which ‘race’ is embedded in the text’ (Dyson.Costume Drama. making the audience aware of their own voyeuristic position but also disavowing this through its association with the least sympathetic character in the story. However. 1995: 267).
numerous shots of the recently colonised New Zealand landscape (particularly the dark. the association between darker skin. Sue Gillet’s Screen discussion of the film began in the following way: The Piano affected me very deeply. the movement is . The Piano shook. 1995: 286) The film’s affective intensity – its dreamlike quality – is strongly bound up with its ‘Brontesque’ gothicism and the manner in which its strong metalinguistic and symbolic structure draws the audience towards the central character. I held my breath. embodying the idea of an ‘earthy’ sensual lifestyle. moved. free from the complications of Western civilisation. (Gillet. part of the imperialist motif of a genre in which the central subject seeks to establish itself through the eradication of the Other subjects. been revealed. . Ada. lush forest) combined with the sweeping score. For example. who are depicted as being more in tune with their environment. Whether the narrative subject is male or female. the association between that which is barred from bourgeois white society and colonial subjects is a common trope within nineteenth-century fiction. I dreamed of Ada the night after I saw the film. dazed. Stewart’s priggishness is also associated with his cold-hearted. Ada’s sexuality and win her love is clearly bound to his willing embrace of Maori customs and attitudes (he bears tribal markings and invites the Maoris into his modest home). I felt that my own dreams had taken form. I was reluctant to reenter the everyday world after the film had finished. disturbed and inhabited me. The association between landscape and unrepressed sexuality informs the film’s treatment of the Maori characters. Even academic interpretations of the text describe it in unusually emotive terms. the colonies and repressed sexuality is exemplified in Jane Eyre’s treatment of Jane’s raging alter-ego Bertha Mason and the demonisation of Wuthering Heights’s Heathcliff. articulate the film’s concern with repressed sexual passion and unspoken desire. Moreover. I was entranced. Firdous Azim argues that the Brontë novels should thus be read: . . rather than be intimidated by. In The Colonial Rise of the Novel. Thus Baines’s ability to respond to.138 Postmodern Chick Flicks One of the most striking aspects of critical responses to The Piano is the way in which critics tended to stress its powerful emotional force. exploitative attitude towards them. While the dialogue is fairly sparse (as though the other characters were in some way touched by Ada’s elective speechlessness). As many critics of the nineteenth-century novel have argued.
through their association with the ‘Bluebeard’ production. or rather. transgressive romanticism. The initial feminist interest in and identification with nineteenthcentury white middle-class authors and their heroines has constituted one of the areas of feminist study which has been frequently criticised for positing a false commonality of women’s experience. However. While The Piano revises certain aspects of the nineteenth-century femaleauthored text. Nessie’s flouncy outfits and stiff curls accentuate her function as pantomime dame. 1993: 80) In attempting to hold on to the symbolic structure of the nineteenthcentury female-authored novel. Nessie’s shrieking response to the shadow ‘Bluebeard’ figure highlights Ada’s stoicism when confronted with a flesh and blood. re-addressing other subjectivities and histories. 1995). its Brontësque concern with the subjectivity of a white. the standard of petty conformity that Ada is judged (positively) against. The Piano’s concern with repressed sexuality has also retained the dehumanising conception of an ‘other’ in which to locate powerful sexual and emotional impulses. From modernist androgyny to postmodernist female geneology The Piano’s Brontesque references draw on a collective understanding of the cultural significance of the nineteenth-century female-authored . brooding passion for Baines is set against Nessie’s silly. If Ada’s sweeping black skirts enhance her unique. Yet they are also crucial in providing moments of comedy which alleviate the film’s brooding intensity. race or sex.Costume Drama. lower middle-class woman and her struggle for a stake in the hierarchy of white patriarchal society allows little space for addressing. The film’s treatment of lower-class Scottish women is also ambivalent. Historiography and Women’s History 139 always the obliteration of the Other represented in terms of class. Ada’s silent. This feminist critical tendency to identify with the heroines of nineteenth-century novel – and thus negate its metafictional qualities – is present in some responses to The Piano (Gillett. (Azim. the representation of the Maoris is revised to the extent that – far from being the ‘obliterated’ negative repository of repressed Western feelings (in the manner of the dark demonised other of nineteenth-century fiction) – they are depicted as having a more ‘positive’. denying issues of class and race. draw attention to its metafictional qualities. girlish infatuation. freer approach to sexuality and social relations. and. axe-wielding husband. Aunt Morag and Nessie function primarily as comic figures.
linked to author figure Virginia Woolf. Woolf’s Orlando – in keeping with its contemporary status as a classic of ‘high’ modernist literature – attempts to dissolve the concept of stable identity. The 1970s landmark feminist critical works such as Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own rejected Woolf’s interest in androgyny as a gynophobic retreat from and rejection of female identity fuelled by her own troubled body image due to a history of sexual abuse (Showalter. In the next section of this chapter.140 Postmodern Chick Flicks classic and its proto-feminist subtext. privileged bohemian lifestyle associated with Woolf and friends such as Vita-Sackville West. Beginning with her suicide in 1941. The film’s arch commentary and whimsical humour bring to mind the liberal. shifts between time frames and generic expectations. in this case. These contrasting views of Woolf’s are apposite in understanding the difference between Potter and Daldry’s (originally Cunningham’s) conception of Woolf’s legacy and influence as the films offer two very different visions of Woolf and her gender politics. I want to consider Orlando and The Hours as further examples of the influence of female literary heritage on popular costume drama. caught in a metafictional web. Daldry’s film – part literary bio-pic. Its camp lightness (reminiscent of Peter Greenway) suggests a culture of pantomime and play. The development of academic feminist criticism and changing critical response to Woolf’s novels also adds another extratextual dimension to both Potter’s and Daldry’s adaptations. the themes of madness and suicide are omnipresent throughout and are linked to the social and psychological constraints associated with femininity and the female reproductive role. Orlando draws much from the association between Woolf aristocratic gender-play and the notion of gender as performance rather than biology. As a filmic reinterpretation of a literary text which is in itself concerned with playfully crossing the generic boundaries of biography. In a similar manner. Woolf’s endorsement of androgyny was viewed as a painful retreat from her own troubled body image. Daldry’s film explores Woolf’s darker associations. Potter’s version of Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando is already doubly. history and fiction. 1977). What is particularly interesting about Potter’s adaptation is that it departs from Woolf’s original in a manner that challenges the contemporary feminist critical emphasis on gender dissolution/anti-essentialism and gives the filmic Orlando a tougher feminist edge. part period and part contemporary drama. to put . perhaps triply. In marked contrast. But Woolf was later critically reclaimed and rehabilitated on a tide of poststructuralist and postmodernist feminist enthusiasm for l’écriture feminine and the dissolution of gender identity through semiotic play.
to an extent. The juxtaposition of these two trajectories works to highlight not only the interplay between subjective.and. On the way to finding the essential self we often need to claim a specific identity. interpersonal and a broader. I would argue that this is precisely what makes the text such an interesting example of postmodernist/feminist practice. after 500 years. In this sense. 1990: 113). Potter replied that she saw it more as ‘a love poem to the essential self. The text offers an alternative strategy to that of postmodern ‘genderscepticism’ (the refusal to subscribe to a political position locked into the binary logic of sexual difference) (Bordo. In her interview with Potter Manohla Dargis put forward the view that Orlando offered a ‘critique of gender politics’. while managing to convey the sense of identity as historically and ideologically constructed. Potter’s adaptation is both post. linear notions of time and history. but also gives this a more politicised.Costume Drama. Potter’s Orlando foregrounds the continuing cultural and social significance of female identity grounded in women’s collective historical experience of social exclusion and oppression. Potter’s response seems surprising given the original text’s interest in dissolving – rather than reinforcing – gender identity and the widespread suspicion and rejection of all forms of ‘essentialist’ politics in recent years. historical female struggle. In contrast. material basis in women’s experience. for all its visual trickery. Far from rejecting femininity. cross-dressing and postmodernist play with anti-realist devices (such as Swinton’s asides to the camera). It proposes a heterogeneous view of the subject and substitutes androgyny for sexual difference. in the birth of her daughter. However. reconnecting Woolf’s imaginative flight into androgyny with contemporary postmodernist feminist aesthetics. the film glorifies feminine ‘otherness’ placing emphasis on its problematic relation to masculine. 1993: 42). Orlando’s story is thus interwoven with two opposing temporal planes reminiscent of Julia Kristeva’s opposition between monumental/epic and ‘woman’s time’: that of British imperial history (beginning with the 1600s and ending in 1990s London) and cyclical ‘woman’s’ time – from death to (re)birth – with Orlando’s personal quest and the romantic subplot traversing spatial and temporal boundaries and finally culminating. anti-modernist. to challenge the assumption that sexual difference is the anchor of selfhood. to find refuge and solidarity in others that are similar’ (Dargis. In the project . Historiography and Women’s History 141 subjectivity into question and. more significantly. reviewing and reworking modernist paradigms. more abstract notion of historical forces. it nonetheless holds on to the notion of a collective.
in which lesbian icon Greta Grebo struck a similar pose. Moreover. for even viewers unfamiliar with Swinton would immediately recognize the image as that of an attractive woman in Elizabethan costume. The undisguised femininity of Potter’s ‘male’ Orlando has various interesting implications for the earlier part of the text (prior to Orlando’s metamorphosis to womanhood). while the novel’s opening lines are followed by a scene in which the male Orlando is ‘in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which hung from the rafters’ (Woolf. recalling the famous final shot from the classic Hollywood costume drama. Potter’s treatment of the question of gender and ‘essential’ identity foregrounds both the unfairness and irrationality of gender oppression – the fact that gender should be irrelevant – but also recognises the interrelated manner in which its social and cultural importance (in determining status. Queen Christina (Mamoulian. 1992: 13). Secondly.142 Postmodern Chick Flicks of rereading and re-representing the past through the agency of gender. 1933). Potter’s feminised Orlando is first witnessed sitting under a tree reading poetry. ‘his’ love-affair with the Cosack Sasha (Charlotte Valendrey) has all the appearance of a lesbian encounter with the rare depiction of an on-screen lesbian kiss. Firstly. Same sex desire is also suggested in the strangely still shot of Sasha and Orlando looking out on the ship’s deck. most of the film’s playful treatment of gender reversal and cross-dressing (Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth. in Potter’s adaptation Orlando is played by a high profile female actor throughout both the male and female sections of the text. adolescent girl. This adds an ironic twist to the opening line (taken directly from Woolf’s text) ‘there can be no doubt of his sex’. voice or movements. power and wealth) leads women to take up their gender as a political rallying point and turn it back on patriarchal society. it is useful and appropriate to assume the existence of an ‘essential’ femininity (defined largely through female experience) however strategic this may be. Bearing this in mind. Jimmy Sommerville as a cherub) takes place before Orlando is ‘officially’ transformed into a . Swinton plays (the male) Orlando more as a gawky. In particular. The ‘strategic’ postmodernist treatment of gender in Orlando allows the film to explore the metaphoric and imaginative power of gender identity without wielding it as an essentialist binary opposition. I want to highlight some of the ways in which Potter shifts the film’s emphasis away from Woolf’s gender indeterminacy to Orlando’s strategic female subject. Although Tilda Swinton looks superb in her doublet and hose and is described in the initial voice over as ‘tall and thin with an androgynous appearance’ there is no real attempt to masculinise Swinton’s bodyshape.
1992: 279). This statement is also negated.Costume Drama. The most uplifting moments in the film are those in which Orlando is either unclothed. those of social. In her ludicrous costume and wig. The final scene in which Orlando returns to the location in which the story originated is shot by her ‘daughter’ with a hand-held camera. more forcefully. while Woolf’s Orlando gives birth to a male child and is then. suggesting that ‘there is a seeking of autobiographical continuities. allowed to regain some of her former power and influence. Orlando’s ostentatious clothing signifies only disempowerment and social restraint. or daughterhood. it works to undercut her comment ‘different sex – same person’. The scene in which this transition is revealed to the viewer is one of the more sombre moments in the film: an angelic chorus accompanies Orlando standing naked before the mirror admiring her new feminine form and striking a pose conspicuously reminiscent of Bottecelli’s The Birth of Venus. Penny Florence has argued that this last scene encourages the viewer to retrospectively interpret the film as an attempt to construct a (matra) linearity. . While the emphasis on costume in The Piano subverts its association with feminine oppression. The following scene in which Orlando is a barely tolerated guest at Pope’s literary salon. the grainy film giving a sudden jolt to the viewer’s perspective. or as a woman. The female Orlando is initially depicted in a cumbersome and exaggerated white eighteenth-century crinoline. chided for belonging to neither a husband or father. in the following sequences in which Orlando returns from his/her stint in Constantinople to eighteenth-century England and finds that. when she is dressed in nongender-specific clothing. Orlando is thus expected to appear rather than participate. as a woman. attempting to manoeuvre her constrained body through a narrow corridor surrounded by white covered furniture which resembles the dress. about what motherhood might mean. In this sense. As the image suggests the ‘fixity’ of Orlando’s identity before the mirror. to become ‘part of the furniture’ as in the previous scene. also emphasises her immediate loss of status. in Potter’s Orlando the child is female (with Swinton’s flame-haired niece making an appearance in the last few scenes of the film). the film also highlights the conflict between the notion of gender as arbitrary or superficial and the cultural requirement that subjects must take up a sexed identity. a female genealogy’ (Florence. by proxy. Historiography and Women’s History 143 woman. legal and political representation. Thirdly. female identity is defined as fixed outside certain parameters – in this historical context. while also suggesting that if masculinity is a subject position which allows for a degree of flexibility. she no longer has any legal right to her property or title.
In addition to this. In Potter’s Orlando gendered relations of power and resistance are enacted through a sequence of moments in British imperial history. far more . the generally ‘static’ female identified form of the costume drama with its ‘detail-rich. Potter’s ‘reconstructed’ female subject acts as a locus of resistance to the ‘masternarrative’of British imperial history. If postmodernism is often associated with the retreat from ‘women’s’ politics into an anti-essentialist critique of gender identity – and is thus opposed to using the notion of female collectivity as a rallying point – Potter’s sophisticated reworking of Woolf’s novel illustrates the possibilities of adopting postmodernist cinematic devices (self-reflexivity. any adaptation from novel to film will depart from the original writing in some significant respects. These moments are presented as a succession of sumptuous visual set-pieces. it brings together two conflicting narrative forms. while the use of the shaky camera certainly draws our attention to the question of how the story has been framed. ‘I am England and you are mine’ Orlando and romance The gendering of colonial discourse and the process by which the identity of the white imperial male is shored up via the denial of subjectivity to both the imperial white woman and the colonial other is a standard focus of investigation in post-colonial theory. meandering. In utilising these forms to prioritise the mother–daughter relationship (the result of Orlando’s ‘quest’ is her daughter) Orlando parallels the recent interest in women’s autobiography/female geneologies in other fields of feminist aesthetics. a preoccupation with ‘surface’ detail and so on) in the service of a feminist concern with women’s historical oppression.144 Postmodern Chick Flicks However. 1997: 172). languorous quality’ and the more dynamic traditionally ‘masculine’ form of the biographical quest or journey (Pidduck. as highly stylised fantasy locations rather than convincing or authentic portrayals of historical deeds or personages. Clearly. indeed. this is emphasised throughout the text through its metafictional gendering of representations of history. The use of the slightly surreal backdrop and interiors favoured by British avant-garde directors such as Peter Greenaway or Derek Jarman distances the viewer from a Eurocentric perspective: the scenes in Elizabethan or Victorian England (such as the luminous frozen Thames ice breaking into evenly spaced chunks or the enormous Victorian teacup topiary) appearing quite as exotic. As Julianne Pidduck has argued in her reading of the film. gender identity and postmodernist aesthetics. but Potter’s version raises some specific questions about the relationship between feminism.
She cites Orlando’s rapid departure from the battleground and his flight to femininity as something of a cop-out. More generally. middle-class women) this criticism fails to recognise the ‘postmodernist’ manner in which the film links colonial and gender oppression. conceived in European bourgeois social experience. does not translate well to address the savagery of bloody colonial conflict? (Pidduck. Perhaps a feminist costume drama can most powerfully and precisely address a particular white. understated mannered form of this genre. the ornate wigs and ribbons (again. Echoing Jameson’s perspective on the distinction between arch historicity and serious historical engagement. 1997: 188) Although there may well be limitations to ‘critical feminist costume drama’ (as I suggest below. . revealing the film’s inability to deal with this issue by substituting gender for imperial conflicts: In Potter’s contemporary adaptation.Costume Drama. in which visual spectacle is prioritised over more serious historical engagement. Historiography and Women’s History 145 so. This distancing effect is also further amplified by mythological significance already awarded to some of the events depicted such as the courtiers skating on the ice during the Great Frost of London. bourgeois experience of English femininity. In this respect. perhaps the polite. it does tend to focus on the experience of white. the contested quality of imperial space presents a limit. exaggerated even by eighteenth-century standards) worn by (male) Orlando during his time as a colonial ambassador in the Khiva emphasises the strangeness of the imperial authority rather than the ‘otherness’ of natives. Julianne Pidduck suggests that the film’s playful sartorial language is more suited to the critical analysis of historical gender roles than to its depiction of anti-imperial struggle. Yet it is this visual excess (the sharp visual contrast between the ubiquitous black clothes worn by the skaters and the white ice for example) which situates the text as an example of postmodernist historiographic metafiction. Similarly. Potter’s text might well be viewed as a highbrow version of the ahistorical nostalgia film critiqued by Jameson. Thus the restrictive. voluminous skirts worn in the Pope sequence reinforce the scene’s thematic interest in the strict code of conduct to which upper-class English women were forced to submit. a vanishing point for a critical feminist costume drama. foregrounding the fictionality of historical representation and commenting critically on prior representation. than the relatively naturalistic representation of eighteenth-century Constantinople.
His second encounter. announcing ‘I adore you. is also a humbling experience. During his time in Constantinople Orlando becomes closely associated with the prince and effectively ‘goes native’. the film highlights key points in British bourgeois and imperial history. yet this particular episode should be viewed in relation to its overall treatment of issues of power. POLITICS’. at the moment of British global ascendency. As I have already suggested. Shelmerdine. in more general terms. inequality and national identity. irony and visual excess softens the hard-edge of its critique of the historical oppression under both patriarchy and imperialism. you are mine’. Shelmerdine (Billy Zane). SEX’ – and the rapid. Orlando (as a man) becomes infatuated with the alluring Sasha and demands her submission. Moreover. Orlando’s romance narrative is mapped onto patterns of imperial oppression and resistance. Despite the seemingly arbitrary time segments – ‘1600. these incidents are in many ways the driving force of the text. . It thus consists of three different encounters with the ‘other’: Sasha. In the first of these encounters. In despair at his rejection Orlando is despatched to Constantinople to act as British Ambassador for King Charles. ‘1850. In the following scene in which Orlando is ordered to take up arms with British and Turkish rulers in order to crush the insurrection of the masses he submits to a fainting fit and is reborn as a woman. ‘1650. the Turkish prince. The encounters are linked to the film’s attempt to find points of commonality between gender and ethnic oppression rather than to sidestep the latter in favour of the former. LOVE’. the East). beginning. SOCIETY’. DEATH’. the Russian ambassador and the American. Abandoning his ambassadorial uniform. with the Turkish prince. POETRY’. ‘1610. sporadic movement through time frames and historical locations. Khan (Lothaire Bluteau) (representing. postmodernist use of anti-realist devices. but they are also foregrounded in the sections dealing with Orlando’s romantic encounters with Sasha. he is seen relaxing in Harem pants at the Turkish bath. significantly. ‘1700. and the American pioneer. Orlando is horrified when Sasha – regarded as semi-primitive by the English courtiers – refuses to submit. The question of whether this genre is appropriate or successful in addressing these issues should not be a question of the relative weight of the subject matter (haven’t women also been subject to centuries of state sanctioned brutality?) but whether Orlando’s playful. each resulting in a shift in Orlando’s perception and a step forward in ‘her’ developmental journey. The Khiva sequence depicts these issues at their starkest (in the context of war).146 Postmodern Chick Flicks Pidduck views Orlando’s retreat from the Khiva as symptomatic of the film’s avoidance of issues of colonial conflict. ‘1750.
now appropriated by a single mother. displaying the energy and independence of Shelmerdine’s quest. While the primary focus of Orlando is the experience of white. Suggesting both the historical gains achieved by women in the twentieth century and importance of mother/daughter relations. the text successfully exemplifies the politicised . Beginning with her desperate flight through the maze and closing with the image of Orlando standing among and apparently ‘hemmed in’ by the overbearing topiary teacups. The oppressive topiary is now concealed by large white covers. On his return to England (within the same time frame) Orlando is proposed to by the Archduke Harry (John Wood) who demands that ‘I am England and you are mine’ (echoing Orlando’s pompous declaration to Sasha) and emphasising the connection between territorial and sexual conquest. is decidedly upbeat. the point that marks both the high-point of British imperial power and thus the onset of its slow decline. but reversing. Orlando returns to her former stately home. set in the 1990s. Yet the final sequence. upper-class English womanhood (the common focus of the ‘heritage’ film) its deployment of this mode of knowing history is not exclusively used to explore this particular mode of subjectivity but to place it in a symbolic structure of broader relations of power and oppression. The continuity between Orlando’s three ‘others’ is primarily articulated through their resemblance despite gender switches – dark haired and olive skinned in opposition to Orlando’s red hair and pallid complexion. the earlier scene in which the eighteenth-century Orlando moves awkwardly between the white covered furniture. oppressive nature of Victorian gender expectations and women’s confinement to the domestic sphere. the power relationship is reversed following Orlando’s change of gender. while she is left pregnant and destitute. the sequence wittily conveys the claustrophobic. He leaves to conquer other lands. However. As an example of filmic historiographic metafiction.Costume Drama. no longer in possession of her title or property. in the final encounter. Orlando rides her motorbike through the avenue with her small daughter. Set in the mid-nineteenth century. Focusing on the text’s episodic pattern of historical gender/power relations and their relation to constructions of the nation and national identity highlights the complex way in which questions of gender. Echoing. Historiography and Women’s History 147 The association between Orlando’s refusal to fight on the side of the British and his ‘feminisation’ through his association with the oppressed colonial other is made quite explicitly here. imperialism and national identity – a subtext to Woolf’s novel – are brought to the surface of Potter’s postmodernist adaptation. the romance is consummated and Orlando is impregnated by the American adventurer. staged in Victorian England. Shelmerdine.
The familiar feminine theme of domestic incarceration is alluded to as Woolf is. The link between them is established in the opening sections through successive shots of the three women waking and rising. the experiences of a young. Closely replicating Cunningham’s novel. Like the latter it also concerns the conflict between the interior world and social convention. The sombre mood and tone of The Hours is far closer to The Piano. 2002) which focus on psychological and physical illness. linked to wider historical events. But if the dramatic opening scene cast a familiar cloud of impending doom over the films portrait of the women writer. particularly in relation to the social and cultural constraints placed on women. such as Sylvia or Iris. Mrs Dalloway is the key thread that runs through each scene: thus we witness Woolf’s painful struggle to create the novel in the 1920s following a bout of mental illness. to her death – literally walking into the water – but it also excludes Cunningham’s wartime reference to circling bombers. suicide results from a complex relation between external and internal triggers. the metafictional historiographic framework shifts between Woolf writing Mrs Dalloway in the 1920s Richmond. at this point. in a witchlike manner. restricted to the . to its credit. The voice-over letter to Leonard emphasises that Woolf’s suicidal impulse stems from her own singular mental illness rather than external events – ‘I fear I am going mad again’ – yet in both Mrs Dalloway (in which the shell-shocked Septimus commits suicide) and in Cunningham’s portrait of Woolf. Woolf. 2003) and Frieda (Taymor. the film charts one day in the life of each character. the film appears initially to shore up the much-mythologised. 2004). unlike recent literary bio-pics. pregnant mother in early fifties in LA and a successful publisher in contemporary New York. The darker. Sylvia (Jeffs.148 Postmodern Chick Flicks engagement with history which is possible through the playful postmodernist use of anti-realist devices and its use of visual excess and historical discontinuity. dehistoricised figure of the crazed artistic woman. By opening with Woolf’s suicide. optimistic adaptation of Orlando. unnaturally. Following the suicide scene. metafiction and the literary bio-pic The conception of Woolf and her legacy in The Hours is sharply at odds with Potter’s uplifting. it does. attempt to weave Woolf’s artistic achievements into the film at every point. individualist focus of The Hours also draws parallels with other recent literary bio-pics concerning women writers and artists. such as Iris (Verges. Not only does the film show Woolf sliding effortlessly and.
From The Hours. as Vaughan organises a party for Richard. her confinement enforced by Leonard Woolf and the servants. The Hours is a filmic adaptation of Cunningham’s metafictional homage to Mrs Dalloway. 2002. psychologically focused novelistic ur-text – Mrs Dalloway – has thus already been mediated and reimagined through metafictionalising frame of writer (Woolf) reader (Laura Brown) and an updated version of the central character (Clarissa Vaughan). The insular. Historiography and Women’s History 149 home on the advice of psychiatrists. an ex-lover and successful poet who is dying of an AIDS-related illness. which is a postmodernist filmic adaptation of a modernist text. housewife Laura Brown attempts to read the novel in brief moments snatched away from her childcare and domestic responsibilities. while Cunningham’s novel can still retain the crucial Woolfian device of contrasting outwardly banal everyday conversations and actions with intense interior perception and feeling. In the late twentieth-century section the film draws comparisons between the life and perceptions of the fictional Mrs Dalloway and publisher Clarissa Vaughan. However. In the 1950s section.Costume Drama. Mrs Dalloway’s theme of outward competence and inward distress chiming with her own concealed sense of profound alienation. . Daldry’s adaptation of Cunningham’s novel must work through either suggestion or verbal declaration. Unlike Orlando.
The encounter between Brown and her intimidating. The film is not crude enough to refer directly to the key cultural influences of the period. is equally alienated and miserable despite her fecundity and socially approved role as wife and mother. outwardly confident but infertile neighbour Kitty hammers home the point that both childbearing and childlessness are difficult options when women are exclusively and oppressively defined through their ability to perform the caring or domestic management roles. Yet this mythologised figure is also historicised through the period structure of the film and its key Woolfian theme: the conflict between woman as carer and as creative being links the three sections. mother of a three-year-old boy and pregnant with her second child. Woolf is sneered at by her servants for failing to manage her household adequately and openly ridiculed as an eccentric. feeling and everyday experience (sounding somewhat pretentious) but much is conveyed through the sombre Phillip Glass score. popularised by child psychologist John Bowlby in the early 1950s. As in Far from Heaven. As in the novel. mise-en-scene and visual symbolism. The writer’s watery death is also mythologised and given symbolic significance through its association with Laura’s later fantasy of suicide by drowning. In a similar manner to The Piano (when Ada is submerged in water but finally decides to ‘choose life’) the water/drowning woman imagery is associated with a subversive. particular water and flower imagery. mystery and symbolic significance that typifies much of Woolf’s work. articulate Woolfian perceptions of the relation of art. Domestic objects – such as the cake – are also invested with the power. nature symbolism.150 Postmodern Chick Flicks In the Woolf and present-day sections characters do. links characters and states of mind. the effect of the 1950s ideology of domesticity is depicted in stark and chilling terms in the Laura Brown sections of The Hours. at some points. In the period England section. Continuity is therefore established between Woolf’s domestic incarceration in suburban England and the oppressive ideology of the domestic in the 1950s LA. but the impact of Bowlby’s work is very much in evidence here. the madwoman (Woolf) and the ‘unnatural mother’ (Brown) reconfigured as misunderstood artist and visionary. witchlike feminine presence. In the 1950s section. Laura Brown. Pleasantville and Mona Lisa Smile. The flowers bought by Clarissa for Richard and the flowers on the cake baked by Laura Brown emphasise the appreciation of beauty felt by the suppressed artistic soul. The slightly atonal postmodern Glass score and the filtered gold lighting used in LA 1950s . such as the theory of the determining influence of the mother figure. childless Aunt by her nephews.
In both the US and UK there has been a recent cultural resurgence of theories of ‘infant determinism’: the theory that children who spend time away from their mothers in the early years will be irrevocably damaged and a growing perception that all forms of institutionalised childcare are inferior to mothercare. but swiftly moves on to her forced and awkward attempts to behave like a ‘normal’ mother: Richard is allowed to participate in baking his father’s birthday cake. suggesting to him that it ‘looks like snow’ does Brown appear to take any pleasure in her child. although she . the dying poet. Shot from his perspective. In the UK. having waved her husband away at the window. The treatment of motherhood in the film is a timely reminder of the anxiety and oppression experienced by many women during the era in which theories of attachment. parenting and the negative effects of maternal absence held sway. In this respect. 2006) psychologist Oliver James (2002) and sociologist Jane Waldfogel (2006). her frozen smile gradually fades and is replaced by a cold. The film momentarily suggests that she might actually intend to harm him. the depiction of Brown’s troubled interaction with her young son in The Hours is still unusually raw and disturbing. Historiography and Women’s History 151 section work to emphasise the contrast between outward conformity and success and interior mental distress. As the film progresses it becomes increasingly clear in the present day section that Richard. highlighting the isolation and misery experienced by many stay-at-home mothers and the effect of their unhappiness on their children. Brown turns back towards her little boy is particularly unsettling. This view has been popularised by new childcare gurus such as Steve Biddulph (2003.Costume Drama. Only in the sequence in which she helps him sift the flour. Jill Kirby’s work for the government Centre for Policy Studies has also loudly championed the cause of stayat-home mothers (2002). If the trope of the oppressed. blank look in his direction. We learn that. often carrying the assumption that mothers of younger children do not or should not want to engage in paid labour outside the home. lonely 1950s housewife is highly familiar in contemporary cinema. The majority of these writers and commentators are nominally sympathetic towards working mothers – the consumerist demand for two income families is more often blamed than feminism nowadays – but their approach tends to be mother rather than parent focused. is Brown’s now adult child. and this is clearly mother/son bonding over the aesthetic appreciation of the appearance of the flour rather than through shared domestic ritual. The moment in which. the Laura Brown section of The Hours is a bold and uncomfortable intervention into popular cultural memory.
Brown abandoned her children shortly after the birth of her baby. Brown and Kitty. The film’s emphasis on comparative cultural moments and shifting social attitudes prevents the viewer from easily assigning blame to any particular character. and thus symbolically forgiven for abandoning her children by Clarissa’s twenty-something daughter. in which the young Richard is reunited with his mother after her trip to the hotel and the abortive suicide attempt. This is later followed by Richard’s own suicide. Although the film concerns patriarchal constraints. in terms of the film’s (and period drama’s) more general interest in marginalised sexual behaviour. the initial individualist focus of the Woolf suicide scene – typical of the bleak. but the link between women’s oppression and compulsory heterosexual desire is re-enacted in the two period sections. literary bio-pic – opens up into a much broader and more complex view of the interaction between the individual psyche and social and cultural conditions. When the insensitive Lewis (the adult Richard’s ex-lover) tosses aside Richard’s lengthy and intense autobiographical novel with the casual comment. despite their collusion with the broader cultural restraints on women. In typical period style. Significantly. In this sense. The film cuts between the 1950s section. loving and well-meaning. finally carried through her abortive attempt.152 Postmodern Chick Flicks pulled back from the brink of suicide. links are forged between female oppression and the social marginalisation of non-heterosexual desire. Claire (Clare Danes). Following Richard’s suicide. in some way. ‘two hundred pages and then she kills herself over nothing’ we have already witnessed the historically situated distress which precipitates her feelings of despair. both moments contrast with the apparently fraternal relationships depicted with their spouses. Indeed. Cunningham’s concern with gay sexuality and the AIDS crisis is somewhat played down in Daldry’s adaptation. suggesting that the infantile Richard was aware of her intentions. the only male/female relationship in which intense . and the film’s clear implication that Richard has been damaged by maternal abandonment. Thus Woolf and sister Vanessa’s Bell’s spontaneous and shocking moment of passion is mirrored by the unexpected kiss between suburban housewives. the male characters are not demonised or depicted as primarily responsible for female misery. our sympathy and compassion is still directed towards Brown. suggesting that he has. the now elderly Brown visits Clarissa and is embraced. Laura Brown’s husband Dan and Leonard Woolf are portrayed as kindly. We also learn that Richard’s autobiographical novel includes a scene of maternal suicide. But despite the long-term ramifications of Laura’s actions. women-focused. and the tearful Richard in the late twentieth-century section.
Orlando and The Hours are not alternative or ‘counter’-period dramas (although they may present a counter-history). is portrayed as matronly. Laura Brown. middle-class women and gay men but. a badly dressed. both of whom have spent most of their lives in same-sex relationships. the second on a modernist classic and the third on a postmodernist reinterpretation of a high modernist text. Looking at the form’s ability to address issues of oppression beyond the standard period interest in the subject of women and sexuality also . The metafictional structure of The Hours successfully draws a parallel between the oppression of white. the childminder. course. Although Woolf is portrayed as a difficult employer. Brown. the three aforementioned examples. Historiography and Women’s History 153 feeling is exhibited is between the bisexual Clarissa and Richard. nasty and overweight (Boxhall was actually younger than Woolf herself). whether to open up issues such as colonialism or the suppression of female sexuality in classic literature (as in Rozema’s Mansfield Park) or to provide a revisionist. femalefocused account of key historical events (such as the treatment of the American civil war in Cold Mountain (Minghella.to the micronarrative. to a lesser extent. Films such as The Piano. who is based on Woolf’s long-term servant Nellie Boxhall. The selfconscious reworking of historical material.Costume Drama. The delicate. is contrasted with Mrs Larch. Nellie. demonstrate both the influence of postmodernist techniques on the genre. 2003)) has become commonplace in popular cinema. and its compatibility with a feminist interest in cultural history. the servants and the childminder are clearly depicted as lacking the finer feelings that unite Woolf. overweight smoker (Woolf nervously puffing away in the 1920s denotes her agitated. artistic presence and a rebellion against standard femininity. thin ascetic Woolf is bullied by servants who are depicted as spiteful and uncaring. and Mrs Larch does nothing obvious to harm the young Richard. while Mrs Larch’s dangling cigarette signifies her lower-class status). rather they illustrate the genre’s radical potential to readdress historical gender inequalities with a contemporary eye. as in The Piano. in most examples of the ongoing cycle. the feelings and experiences of working-class women are given short shrift. a tendency which is present. In a similar but less overt manner. To return to more general questions concerning the return of costume and period drama. The subjective focus of the costume drama is the ideal vehicle for addressing women’s historical oppression as it automatically shifts the historical frame from the macro. one based on an idealised notion of the nineteenth-century novel. with her slim elegant body and suppressed aesthetic sensibility. Clarissa and the adult Richard.
the subjective. . middle-class female subject. Potter’s Orlando plays fast and loose with Woolf’s original. such as characters directly addressing the audience. Conversely.154 Postmodern Chick Flicks brings us back to the issue of postmodernist technique. The frame narrative cuts between periods but the sections themselves are relatively naturalistic. Despite its use of self-conscious Freudian imagery and concern with the symptomatically silenced woman. but unlike The Hours and The Piano. The central protagonist’s asides to the camera are linked to a more selfreflexive notion of character as Orlando is continually being repositioned by social and cultural structures. using more obvious defamiliarising methods. but more directly (if playfully) historical and socio-cultural. psychological focus of The Hours is tied to the class-bound attitudes that typify Woolf’s work and Cunningham’s perception of it. It is no coincidence that Potter’s Orlando seems more able to find points of commonality between gender and other forms of oppression than The Piano or The Hours. The Piano is also locked into the nineteenth-century novel’s preoccupation with the aspirations of the white. Similarly. Potter draws out Woolf’s interest in gender difference and oppression. the focus is not psychological and internal. It is this postmodernist dynamic of shifting perspectives within a socio-historical framework that more readily allows for the recognition of other subjectivities and experiences.
such as the melodrama. My second purpose is to re-interrogate the perception of popular postmodernist cinema as a form at best indifferent to feminist concerns. anti-popular cinematic feminist postmodernist filmic practice (drawing on a notion of postmodernist cinema as the natural successor to modernist avant-gardism and feminist counter-cinema) or the identification of a broadly male-orientated. domestic (romantic) melodrama. to extend the analysis of the ideological and political uses and effects of postmodernist aesthetics into areas which have hitherto tended to be associated with a conservative ‘feminine’ aesthetic of emotional over-engagement. often violent or overtly misogynistic ‘popular’ postmodernist cinema 155 .5 Neo-Noir and Noir-Lite: Masculinity and Postmodernist Aesthetics in New Retro-Noir In the preceding chapters I have attempted to address the question of postmodernist filmic practices and gender representation by examining the use of filmic techniques associated with postmodernist cinema – such as irony. at worst as an insidious manifestation of an anti-feminist backlash. The rationale for focusing on what are generally regarded as women’s genres: costume drama. or romantic comedy is twofold. Firstly. I have attempted to develop an understanding of the possibilities of female-orientated. It seems clear that many contemporary female-identified films tend to blend the more conventional pleasures associated with these forms with either a wry acknowledgement of their social function in fuelling traditional female aspirations (as in recent romantic comedy) or with a more obviously feminist-inspired attempt to critique traditional genre roles by working against generic expectation. allusion or self-reflexivity – in genres associated primarily with the female audience. postmodernist cinema which moves beyond either the appreciative evaluation of a worthy but marginal. By focusing on popular female genres.
In keeping with the generic focus of this approach. as opposed to ‘art-house’ or independent cinema. spectatorship and the way in which classical genres reappear in different guises in the context of post-classical cinema.156 Postmodern Chick Flicks aligned to the work of directors such as David Lynch. It is also the (revived) genre cited in many of the key critical essays on postmodernist cinema that appeared in the 1980s. it is now possible to return to masculine postmodernist cinema. I want to reconsider what was initially understood and rightly condemned by feminist critics as the more ‘maleorientated’ violent side of popular postmodernist cinematic production. given some of the complex problems around gender/genre distinctions. There are several reasons why noir provides a useful starting point for critical re-engagement with male-orientated popular postmodernist cinema. its theoretical analysis was tightly bound to Hollywood texts of the 1980s and thus the cultural climate of the Reagan era and the ascendency of the American Right. gender and . postmodernist sensibility in popular women’s forms. the distinction between a ‘bad’ backward looking. misogynistic postmodernism and a putative. One of the problems with the feminist debate on postmodernist cinema is that while the aesthetic techniques associated with the former have become more and more widely disseminated across a range of popular cinematic forms. critics such as Carroll. Aside from its well-known association with various forms of feminine deviance and the subsequent interest it generated for feminist critics. female-orientated popular postmodernism is increasingly untenable. More importantly. for example. develop much of their analysis of more general trends through an analysis of neo-noir. this issue will be addressed through a historical/textual analysis of that most contentious of genres – film noir. The rapid association of postmodernist cinema with a certain kind of casual. noir provides a telling example of the way in which debates on postmodernism. and to ask how its re-articulation of prior filmic forms has evolved in response to the popular development of a more feminised postmodernist cinematic practice. It also seems increasingly apparent that. Having investigated the development of an ironic. derogatory depiction of the female figure tended to lock postmodernism and feminism into adversarial positions which foreclosed the possibility of a more productive alliance between postmodernist aesthetics and feminist politics in popular. noir connects many of the issues associated with classical and ‘rétro’ genres which have been discussed in the previous chapters. Bearing this in mind. Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino. Jameson and Creed.
While broader critiques of postmodernist neo-noir assume a universal understanding of what the genre entailed. Where generic labels did gain . academic film criticism has become increasingly circumspect about working with the established models of genre production (Neale. but there has also been an extension of genre-spotting snobbery from a cine-literate elite to ‘ordinary’ viewers via the wider availability of old films through cable and video. As these categories circulate more freely in popular discourse. Once a genre familiar only to the serious film buff. cobbled together by critics. the argument that generic boundaries were far from stable even during the classical period calls into question the distinction between noir and the more stable or easily recognised genres. a ‘phantom genre’ (1998: 35). noir is now a label attached to virtually any text featuring a little clever lighting. The studios have much invested in the extension of a critical vocabulary that allows them to repackage – and thus resell – old products. Altman. Not surprisingly. while the term seems to circulate more and more freely within contemporary cinema – spawning subcycles such as neo.1 Rick Altman’s reassessment of genre theory clarifies the problem. According to Altman studios tended to blur such distinctions for fear of limiting their potential audience.or technoir – more sustained. The critical evaluation of a film’s postmodernist credentials (primarily through its knowing inclusion of prior cinematic references) tends to carry with it certain assumptions concerning the stability of classical Hollywood genres and the universal recognition of their constituent parts which are very much at odds with recent academic approaches to classical genre production. historical noir critiques are constantly drawing attention to its status as. the industrial strategy. 2000: 17–29.Neo-Noir and Noir-Lite 157 genre often seem to be taking place in parallel worlds. such as it was. a crime plot and an alluring female villainess (a point I will return to later). For while critics are right to draw attention to both the problems of defining noir (given the length and intensity of these debates this problem could hardly be ignored) and its status as what Krutnik refers to as a ‘post-constructed’ category (1991: 17). the proliferation of film-appreciation websites and so forth. in Rick Altman’s terms. The contemporary cinephilic appreciation of classical Hollywood genres comes from many sources. noir critics move further away from any concrete definitions of the form. attempted to make the film’s appeal as broad and inclusive as possible (offering something for everyone) rather than seeking target audiences through generic distinctions. Nowhere is this contradictory trend more apparent than in debates on film noir. Curiously. 1998).
this was far looser and more transient than some critics of the form imply. Likewise. conferring sophistication and glamour on mainstream popular texts. while it is possible that the label ‘western’ or ‘gangster’ film had a currency with classical audiences unfamiliar with the concept of ‘film noir’. Thus. As I will discuss in more detail below. this disparity between the status awarded to post-constructed classical Hollywood categories on the basis of their gendered appeal obviously informs approaches to postmodernist reworkings of these forms. Critical studies which highlight the difficulty of defining classical noir are often strongly informed by a sense of its marked superiority to other classical forms. its anti-realist expressive visual qualities and associations with European art cinema. The contrast in critical status between noir and female-orientated genres is also significant. as lesser genres struggling for recognition. Those which have been retrospectively defined and appropriated by feminist critics (such as the woman’s film) are viewed with suspicion. Moreover. whereas noir’s status as a ‘post-constructed’ category has only served to enhance its mystique. quickly surpassed by or amalgamated with another term. the presence of ‘noirish’ qualities in contemporary cinema tends to be viewed as something that raises the run-of-the-mill detective or crime story into something with a bit more class.158 Postmodern Chick Flicks audience and industrial recognition. Indeed. The unequal treatment of classical genres on the basis of their gendered appeal may go some way to explaining why the postmodernist recycling and re-articulation of noir features was addressed by critics of postmodernist cinema while the return of certain female-identified classical features went unnoticed. the widely held view that the complex and innovative noir style was a subgenre of the gangster film would seem to refute the idea that the gangster film was an ‘uncontroversial’ genre with inflexible boundaries. it seems likely that some of the problems which have arisen concerning the critical constitution of noir are as much a product of the intense scrutiny that it has been subject to in recent years than evidence of its inherently enigmatic or mysterious nature. their popular currency tended to be fleeting and provisional. or the relationship between contemporary cycles . the popular dissemination and appropriation of such an obviously ‘film schoolish’ critical category as film noir in everything from star interviews to the TV listings guide is indicative of the way in which postmodernist cinema is as much about this collective interest in and understanding of conceptions of genre. placing it a cut above the standard output of Fordist studio production. Without wanting to open up the general difficulties of generic distinction. as I have already suggested. form.
Feminist critical interventions not only exposed noir’s underlying patriarchal logic but also managed to rescue the femme fatale from obscurity and recast her as proto-feminist heroine. by whom and to what purpose? More specifically. However. Following the feminist critical work of the 1980s. the heightened level of critical concern with the form has nonetheless produced a cluster of salient issues concerning the relationship between gender/genre in classical and postmodernist neo-noirs. and wider social and cultural concerns with the re-negotiation of social and sexual identities. which is no longer an assumed and unquestioned filter through which other issues – such as class. The rise and fall of the ‘killer bimbo’: Neo-Noir from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s Gender has been centre stage in debates on classical noir for some time. Feminist psychoanalytic and historical materialist approaches have addressed the androcentric outlook of much classical noir. criminality or social deviance – are explored. recent noir critiques tend to foreground the issue of masculinity itself as a site of tension. debates on the postmodernist nostalgia film. It is perhaps for this reason that feminist critics were quick to note the omission of any analysis of this aspect of the . Although it is still largely regarded as a masculine genre (a point I will return to later). gender-based critiques have been active in redefining.Neo-Noir and Noir-Lite 159 and their well-known classical predecessors as the presence of particular set of aesthetic practices. an issue to be explored and resolved often through violent action or encounters with women. in a wider sense. noir is also one that feminist critics and. how do assumptions about classical noir – particularly those concerning its articulation of gender difference and the significance of aberrant female figures – feed into the production and reception of contemporary (postmodernist) noir texts? There is little doubt that there is something in noir that seems to have (re)captured the interest of the viewing public and industry alike in a manner that other classical forms (such as the western) have not. Aside from comparing the articulation of gender in classical and contemporary neo-noir there is the question of how both these forms are being defined. the emergence of and critical reaction to the spate of popular neo-noirs that appeared during the late 1980s has to be understood in relation to a complex combination of re-definitions of classical noir. But if the noir-mystique has been inflated by successive attempts to pin it down.
1981) – The Postman Always Rings Twice (Garnett. . It’s an old story. a film singled out as exemplary in its use of audience-friendly allusion by both Carroll and Jameson. . the woman-as-devil archetype – in order to be really forceful. Carroll’s extensive and illuminating analysis of the rise of cinematic allusionism began in the following way: One rootless man. We understand Body Heat’s plot complications because we know its allusions . Even its eroticism requires our explicit association of the female lead with certain movie myths – for example. (Carroll. .2 In this respect Body Heat . Yet neither attached much importance to the text’s gender dynamics outside of acknowledging them as part of its strategy to evoke classical noir and to clamour for its critical respectability. driven by an illicit passion for another man’s wife. a murderous bargain with the siren. . It might be noted that the two prior filmic references cited by both Carroll and Jameson as the classical template for Body Heat (Kasdan. 1946) and Double Indemnity (Wilder. provided fertile ground for a gender-based analysis of what precisely was evoked in this text and why it might prove forceful for mass audiences. 1982: 51) Described thus. This association of a particular cultural/political moment with the emergence of the nostalgia or rétro film has been highly influential in establishing the initial critical view of popular postmodernist cinema as an almost inherently conservative form. Or to be more exact it’s an old movie – shades of The Postman Always Rings Twice (’46) and Double Indemnity (’44) . Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 noir-thriller Body Heat. 1944) – are not just any old noir classics (bearing in mind the many varieties of cycles and subcycles in the overall noir corpus) but film noirs which have a particularly strong investment in a ‘deathly desire/fatal passion’ plotline. One of the most striking aspects of this variety of noir is the way in which it gravitates towards the alluring figure of the spider woman/femme fatale figure. For example. This was particularly surprising given that both Carroll and Jameson linked the emergence of neo-noir and the ‘rétro’ or ‘nostalgia’ film to the demise of counter-cultural politics and the death of American radicalism. fateful destruction.160 Postmodern Chick Flicks revived form in the initial attempts to make sense of its reappearance by critics such as Carroll and Jameson. Yet neither of these critics made the connection between the obvious prioritisation of certain archetypal gender roles within these texts and the contradictory shifts in gender identity which had taken place as a result of the second wave women’s movement in the 1970s.
Jameson signals this difference by drawing attention to the strangely insipid quality of Body Heat’s leading male actor – William Hurt – as compared to the more charismatic or overtly macho leading men of yesteryear. if anything. The first of a succession of failed professionals and duped lovers. one element that does tend to characterise the difference between noir and neo-noir is the latter’s prioritisation of the deathly desire narrative and the significance of the figure of the femme fatale at the expense of other ‘noirish’ features. Barbara Creed’s analysis of what was at stake for women in the emergence of the nostalgia film gives much attention to this issue (Creed. Yet Jameson links the frailty of the film’s leading man to its lack of noirish gravitas as opposed to its heavier emphasis on the female lead.Neo-Noir and Noir-Lite 161 was indeed a ‘neo-classic’. 1987). Creed’s overall approach was one which attempted to bring together two hitherto separate fields of postmodern criticism: the more arcane. I want to consider her analysis in some depth. The cultural significance of the return of the femme fatale figure was not lost on feminist critics entering into the 1980s debate on postmodernist cinema. her 1940s ‘rétro’ styling coinciding with a more widespread shift away from the youthful. As Creed’s approach was the first key feminist intervention in the postmodernist cinema/feminism debate. Turner is. However. Casting the bland Hurt alongside Kathleen Turner serves the crucial neo-noir function of pushing the femme fatale into the spotlight. If Hurt is an even weaker version of previous noir anti-heroes. establishing a format replicated by many subsequent neo. tougher and sexier than her classical predecessors. padded-shouldered. just as Turner’s aggressively stylised.or rétro noirs. there is little doubt that male vulnerability is accentuated in the neo form. fresh faced. Hurt is downright pathetic. Although it is difficult to draw clear distinctions between classical and neo-noir. if one can use that term. academic-philosophical debates on postmodernity – particularly the work of Lyotard. the critique of ‘master narratives’ and the popular cultural use of gendered imagery and ‘rétro’ . unassuming ‘natural’ look adopted by many popular actresses of the 1970s and the frosty facade of the ‘post-feminist’. Jameson perhaps underplays the degree to which the outwardly macho leading men in classical noirs were often troubled and inwardly vulnerable. a shadow in comparison with the vivacious Matty (Kathleen Turner). retro glamour-puss of the 1980s. heavily made-up femme fatale – both oddly anachronistic yet prescient of the 1980s power-dressed professional woman – established a particular kind of ‘neo-femme’ aesthetic emulated in many subsequent neo-noir films throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Hurt is the prototype of the down-at-heel neo-noir lover.
The first is through a morbid preoccupation with the female reproductive system in ‘body-horror’ science fiction. concluding that feminism and postmodernism ‘should unite in their efforts’ (Creed. 1987: 66). this collective sense of declining male power seemed to produce a redoubled cinematic misogyny and a backlash of anti-female paranoia. 1979). may not necessarily benefit women’ (Creed. 1987: 50). Jardine is somewhat suspicious of this abstract privileging of ‘the feminine’. many postmodernist texts are informed by male fears of the impact of techno-science on gender hierarchies. Jardine links the postmodern to ‘the loss of the paternal signifier’ (Creed. and welcomes postmodern critical attempts to think about gender beyond binary oppositions. the crisis of the master narratives. In considering popular film in the late 1980s Creed reaches a less optimistic conclusion. 1986) and David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) and Videodrome (1982) she argues that the repulsion expressed in these texts encapsulates a male horror of being reduced to the non-status of women. Creed argues that. she nonetheless stresses the importance of this process for feminist critics.162 Postmodern Chick Flicks aesthetics. Creed points to a variety of ways in which this is manifested. She begins by referring closely to Alice Jardine’s work on ‘gynesis’: the analysis of the relationship between poststructuralist/postmodernist critiques of Enlightenment reason which is aligned to the interrogation of a dominant white. 1987: 52). Citing Alien (Scott. Roughly translating ‘gynesis’ into ‘becoming woman’ (the loss of masculine status guaranteed through the Enlightenment privileging of masculine logic and rationality over female irrationality and sensuality). the terrifying (postmodern) possibility that the system of binary oppositions . logic and the Cartesian subject. Creed comes to the conclusion that far from allowing for the possibility of less rigidly defined modes of gender representation or a more sympathetic exploration of female experience. In a broader sense. her reading of the way in which this is expressed in a range of popular postmodernist film texts suggests that ‘the changes presently occurring in the cinema. Aliens (Cameron. viewing it as part of a wider disenchantment with the master narrative’s investment in male superiority guaranteed through the primacy of reason. She agrees that the postmodern condition may indeed produce a feeling in the zeitgeist of waning male potency and the sense that male identity is somehow ‘in crisis’. masculine subjectivity and which privileges ‘feminine discourse’ as a mode exterior and resistant to this. Along with the more general postmodernist cinematic fascination with the internal body (which continued well into the 1990s and beyond) Creed suggests that the abject female body looms large in much late 1980s cinema. at an unconscious level.
the femme fatale came to signify ‘noirishness’ even in texts which paid little heed to other noir conventions. The Conformist and Body Heat belong to the category of film noir a genre which deliberately plays with the notion of the femme fatale. bloodier reworking of this theme. Chinatown. Referring back to Jameson’s analysis of the ‘nostalgia film’ she states: Significantly. Body of Evidence (Edel. 1997) – in the 1980s and 1990s the form became increasingly identified with the dynamic of deathly desire and the deadly woman. the Law. at least three of the films quoted by Jameson.Neo-Noir and Noir-Lite 163 which keeps the hierarchical relation between male/female in place is crumbling along with the master narratives that held it in place. to cite Lyotard again. 1992) and The Last Seduction (Dahl. embodied in the figure of the femme fatale. While this is addressed in one generic form via body-horror sci-fi (the disgusted fascination with the female reproductive system manifested in the Alien series for example). Final Analysis (Joanou. The Usual Suspects (Singer. has also failed – reduced already to the status of just one ‘class’ amongst many. neo-noirs tend to allow the scheming female to evade punishment. (Creed. the phallic mother whose image constantly threatens to undermine the phallocentric order and turn son against father. 1994) were grouped together as neo-noirs largely because of their sexed-up. But to view the popular cultural revival of texts orientated around deathly desire and the bad woman as stemming entirely from misogynist . largely because the patriarchal symbolic. In each of these re-makes the male protagonist fails in his self-appointed task. Thus texts as varied as Basic Instinct (Verhoeven. But her general dismissal of neo-noir as regressive male fantasy belies the complex responses engendered by the form and the particular appeal of classical and neo-noir to contemporary female critics and audience. 1992). The femme fatale was certainly a prominent figure in the classical noir universe. 1987: 55) Creed was clearly right to draw attention to both the significance of the gender dynamics in the neo-noir (particularly in the absence of any interest in this issue from the leading male postmodernist film critics of the time) and to the way in which. she suggests that noir is also a genre that largely owes its reappearance to its pronounced fear and fascination with woman. in contrast with their classical predecessors. but in neo-noir she is far more powerful and effective at achieving her goals. Like a popular TV character awarded her own spin-off series. With one or two notable exceptions – such as the predominantly male. 1995) or LA Confidential (Hanson. 1992).
Not only is the heroine frequently allowed to ‘get away with it’ but. The feminist objection to such figures is less that they teasingly hold out the promise of alternative modes of female identity while finally working to ward off the threat posed by the independent. For example. Feminists have long argued that one of the more interesting aspects of classical noir is the way in which the overall appeal of the classical noir heroine competes with and undermines the impact of her punishment. much of the film’s darkly comic tone derives from the heroine’s ability to double-cross her gullible lovers by adopting modes of traditional feminine behaviour that are revealed to the audience as comically at odds with her real intentions. As Yvonne Tasker argues. at another level. at some level. creating a tension between the text’s often overt ideological pro-family. a kind of progress. sexualised female. the return of the femme fatale is. explores the pleasure and excitement of the femme fatale that also embodies a non-gender-specific spirit of individualism and anti-authoritarianism. Much of the ironic humour associated with postmodernist forms is harnessed in the service of this figure. dependent lover. it seems unlikely that this could effectively work as a nostalgic palliative to anxious male audiences. just one aspect of the popular cinematic sexualisation of the working woman (Tasker. register male fear of women and feminine sexuality. in itself. While neo-noir may. 1998). anti-crime message and the excitement and desire generated by this figure (Harvey.164 Postmodern Chick Flicks fantasy – generically clothed in noir and reactivated by a zeitgeist of waning male authority – neglects the ambivalent meanings of such a figure. in this sense. frustrated wife is. it also. than that these qualities are insistently associated with either the . 1998). the audience is encouraged to applaud her verve and ingenuity in doing so. the contemporary femme fatale is more likely to be an independent. not only in contemporary neo-noir. caught between a paternalistic father/husband figure and a demanding. the appearance of the classical noir heroine is often associated with the perceived threat to male identity posed by women’s increased employment prospects and economic status in the 1940s. Nevertheless the femme fatale’s reincarnation as professional woman rather than desperate. high-earning professional. Although the ‘bad-girl’/siren has a much longer history. As famous neonoirs – from Body Heat. in neo-noir. but also in previous incarnations. in The Last Seduction. If the classic noir heroine tends to be confined within a male oedipal triangle. to Basic Instinct and The Last Seduction – tend to fully exploit the appeal of the femme fatale while minimising the desire for or possibility of male retribution.
initial attempts to recreate the weight and solemnity of the original form gave way to black humour and a jokey. its hyperreal exploration of paranoic male fantasy appealed to others. The occasional witty exchange or wisecrack may be an accepted part of the formula. In addition to its laboured allusions to Vertigo (Hitchcock. individualist culture. no more a plausible or sympathetic character than Cat Woman or Pussy Galore. in which ‘woman’ is once more called upon to represent all that is worst and best in a culture at a given historical moment. Yet to read these films solely in this way is to ignore another significant distinction between neo-noir and its classical predecessors. overlaid with irony (The Last Seduction). the ‘woman as redeemer’ who functions to restore a sense of community and humanitarian values to a rapacious.Neo-Noir and Noir-Lite 165 amoral pragmatism of Body Heat’s Matty Walker and The Last Seduction’s Bridget Gregory (Linda Fiorentino) or the murderous impulses of Basic Instinct’s Katherine Trammel (Sharon Stone). Although this film offended some sections of the gay community. For this reason alone. The mixed feminist and gay reactions to Basic Instinct’s depiction of glamorous ice-pick wielding lesbians is indicative of the way in which such texts tend to confound notions of inspirational ‘positive’ and offensive images through sheer excess. classical noir was not a genre played for laughs. Like the virtuous heroine of the postmodernist melodrama. One only has to compare a (relatively) self-conscious cine-literate neo-noir text like Basic Instinct to Adrian Lyne’s conventionally realist treatment of . the neo-noir automatically generates a different set of meanings that are tied up with the contemporary audiences’ heightened awareness of the codes of prior noir. their articulation of gender and the way in which these are being self-consciously recycled. or both (Basic Instinct). As the neo-noir cycle developed throughout the 1980s and 1990s. it could be argued that in much postmodernist cinema there is a tedious return to the old opposition between Madonna and whore. If there is one aspect of classical noir which critics do agree on it is the existential weight of the classical form: whatever else it may have been. self-conscious kind of misanthropy. 1958) Basic Instinct constantly foregrounded Catherine Trammel’s status as object of desire and fantasy. but the overall noir ‘mystique’ clearly owes much to the pervading atmosphere of gloom and despair with which it is so strongly associated. For this reason. More important than the tendency within neo-noir to celebrate rather than punish such figures is the way in which their presence is either heavily coded as cinematic allusion (Body Heat). the neo-noir heroine’s entire being is given over to the hungry pursuit of all that consumer culture has to offer.
Just as the rétro romantic comedy encourages contemporary audiences to indulge their romantic fantasies while also maintaining a healthy degree of ironic distance. she has undoubtedly also functioned as an emblem of female desire and aspiration. the neo-noir invites female audiences to revel in the sheer nastiness of the femme fatale. lose the noirish credibility they seek through their paint-by-numbers reproduction of what Carroll describes as ‘the approved cinematic iconography for fear. The noir heroine may indeed draw life from men’s fears and fantasies about the perceived increase in women’s social. 1982: 51). in neo-noir films such as The Last Seduction or Black Widow (Rafelson. in the 1980s and 1990s. While the latter’s attempt at depth psychology is harnessed to the obvious pathologisation of the career woman – played without a hint of irony – the former sends up the dynamic of deathly desire by pushing it to ludicrous extremes and removing any sense of plausible motivation or character identification. sexual and economic power but. 1986) the notion of the femme fatale as sad rather than bad.g. the early 1990s neo-noir tempered its depiction of deadly women with a similar caveat. within neo-noir the satisfaction of the anticipated closure/disclosure of the investigative narrative structure is supplanted by the pleasure of witnessing the heroine gleefully get away with double-crossing everyone in her path. lust and loathing’ (Carroll. shading into more conventional horror/thriller cycles) Julianne Pidduck draws attention to the strange disparity between popular depictions of female violence against men and mounting statistical evidence and heightened social awareness of incidences of actual male violence against women. which tend to be reverential rather than parodic. As a general rule. Body Heat). is downright triumphal. careerist feminism and the old archetype of the dangerous seductress. The Last Seduction – probably the most knowing of the neo-noir cycle – also went furthest towards presenting the femme fatale as outlandish feminist heroine. Even the ‘early’ neo-noirs (e. 1987) to see the difference a little irony can make. in which she disposes of two men and walks away with the stolen cash. The story is shot largely from her viewpoint (unusual even for neo-noir) and the denouement. Similarly.166 Postmodern Chick Flicks the 1980s ‘career bitch’ in Fatal Attraction (Lyne. . a hyperbolic mish-mash of the post-feminist preoccupation with a certain kind of hard-nosed individualist. In her analysis of what she refers to as the ‘fatale femmes’ of recent cinema (appearing in a wider range of analysis than the neo-noir. By strongly coding its conventions – in particular. the depiction of the noir heroine – as fantasy. damaged by childhood trauma and thus potentially ‘curable’ and controllable was subjected to ridicule.
As I have demonstrated in previous chapters. reconnecting them with contemporary social stereotypes and cultural concerns. it may also function as a revenge fantasy for female viewers: The prevalence of the fatal femme narrative seizes obsessively on the exception to the overwhelming rule of male violence committed against women … Where in our everyday lives as women we are bombarded by the evidence of our increasing vulnerability. However. The cycle final descended into either the straight-to-video market or the pure rétro spoof of films such as John Waters’s Serial Mom (Waters. 1995: 72) One of the legacies of feminist campaigns concerning domestic violence and rape is that violence against women is both more culturally visible (manifested in popular texts such as Sleeping with the Enemy) and less socially acceptable. sexual and physical powers offer an imagined point of contact. Escalating levels of violence and explicit sexuality accompanied the demise of the neo-noir until the femme fatale became an exhausted cinematic trope. such as the Madonna vehicle. the heightened self-consciousness and derivative manner typical of the deathly desire-based neo-noirs also ensured that it was not a cycle with long-term potential. unless new elements are blended in. 1994) in which – adding an ironic twist – Body Heat’s original neo-noir . witty allusion soon spirals into risible imitation. (Pidduck. the femme fatale’s embodied social. Body of Evidence (another reworking of the ‘deathly desire’ plot first recycled in the 1980s) were commercial and critical failures. the typically noirish male perceived threat of increasing female power is thus blended with a female revenge fantasy which is itself a product of a new discourse concerning gender power relations and violence.Neo-Noir and Noir-Lite 167 Pidduck argues that while the ‘fatale femme’ cycle accentuates conservative fears about women’s independence. As with other exhumed genres. If audiences were amused and titillated by the voracious ‘killer-bimbos’ of Basic Instinct. spoof. the key element in the more commercially successful revived cycles is their ability to update and revitalise old formulas. For these reasons it seems likely that the revived femme fatale of the early 1990s was a composite figure unleashed through both male and female fantasies. later noirish sex/death thrillers. if not simple identification – as imagined momentum or venting of rage and revenge fantasies the importance of which cannot be underestimated. poverty and limited social power. bad parody and finally.
Early neo-noir critics such as Carroll viewed this lack of affective intensity as part of the expressive design of neo-noir. 1992). innovative women’s films of the past decade – such as The Piano – have also been those that do not allow postmodernist cynicism to spoil the cathartic pleasure associated with the form. are prone to a certain lack of energy and intensity (Carroll. Even Quentin Tarantino’s productions. postmodernist generic reinterpretations. smugly derivative contemporary filmmaking actually include their fair share of scenes designed to provoke emotional engagement and character identification – the camaraderie and ‘honour amongst thieves’ displayed in the scenes between dying Mr Orange (Tim Roth) and paternalistic Mr White (Harvey Keital) in Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino. As Jameson argues of Body Heat. the neo-noir’s descent into sensationalism or humourless pastiche reveals much about the limitations of this mode of popular filmmaking. Kill Bill Vol. influential examples of popular postmodernist cinema tend to be those that slide seamlessly between different modes of address. Kathleen Turner. plays a conventional housewife turned serial killer. This emotional flatness – what Jameson refers to as ‘the waning of affect’ – is apparent in the neo-noir’s failure to generate the high levels of tension and unease associated with the classical form (Jameson. or the frisson generated by Vic (John Travolta) and Mia’s (Uma Thurman) date in Pulp Fiction (1994). arguing that the nervous tension associated with the original was replaced by the more cerebral pleasure of intertextual reference spotting. In contrast. . It is this combination of tears and cine-literate genre awareness that has allowed for the popular rehabilitation of women’s genres and their renewed popularity among contemporary audiences. alternating the cool. the most powerful. As many critics of the form have noted.168 Postmodern Chick Flicks heroine. 1982: 81). Although this may well have been the intention of some of the 1960s brat pack filmmakers to whom Carroll refers. particularly. the neo-noir’s self-conscious preoccupation with the ‘surface’ elements of rétro style draws attention away from its dramatic centre of forbidden desire and criminality. it seemed to produce an affective void which was filled by ever more visceral scenes of sleaze and brutality. this blending of alternate modes of address is not entirely confined to women’s genres. 1 and. for example. The very familiarity of the deathly desire plotline limits its ability to create suspense among contemporary audiences.3 His more recent productions. 1984: 61). which are often seen as the epitome of this kind of hollow. However. As one of the more prominent examples of a revived classical form. distanced pleasures of ironic humour or intertextual play with tear-inducing moments of human drama. The most thoughtful. however affectionate.
in sharp contrast to the early forms of postmodernist cinema cited by critics such as Creed. (Zizek. Blade Runner (1982). 2 (2004 and 2005) integrate aspects of the maternal melodrama into their hyperreal depictions of torture and violence. Continuing this trend. Slavoj Zizek draws attention to … those films which attempt to resuscitate the noir universe by combining it with another genre. Ridley Scott’s early postmodernist classic. As neo-noirs began to emphasise the feminist overtones of the femme fatale – as independent professional woman – they created figures of fantasy and identification for female audiences. is the way in which metagenericity is foregrounded as part of the aesthetic design of the text. Similarly. rétro genres avoid the dangers of disappearing into intertextual oblivion by recombining noir elements with other forms.Neo-Noir and Noir-Lite 169 Kill Bill Vol. and perhaps more commonly. new metagenetic noir blends have produced configurations that go much further in reworking noir gender dynamics and embracing a range of previously unaddressed social and cultural concerns. the scope of the noir universe. Thus Beatrice Kiddo’s (Uma Thurman) brutal pursuit and murder of Bill and his gang is finally offset by her unironic joy at rediscovering her small daughter. where it concerns rétro or postmodernist forms. the noirish elements in Blade Runner that reoccurred in The Terminator (Cameron. Bridging ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ postmodernist cinematic codes. For example. Alternatively. as if film noir were today a vampire-like entity which. 1998). such films combine elements of recent . extracted maximum effect from what was – at that point – an innovative blend of noir and sci-fi. as genres redefine themselves through the inclusion or exclusion of different elements they also generate new social and ideological meanings. 1984). In the remainder of this chapter I want to examine two recent noir hybrids which expand. 1993: 199) According to Rick Altman’s model of generic repackaging there is nothing particularly unusual in this: renewal via reconfiguration with other forms is the standard model of generic development that keeps the system ticking over (Altman. in order to be kept alive. Thus. needed an influx of fresh blood from other sources. Terminator 2 (Cameron. rather than compress. 1991) and the Alien series have now become a familiar aspect of contemporary sci-fi genre codes. In his discussion of noir spin-off cycles. What does perhaps distinguish this process. As ‘tech-noir’ has rapidly become a more familiar cycle it has lost originality but gained generic credibility.
issue-led feel. producing a now substantial strand of television and film drama with a liberal. Noir-Lite If early critics of postmodernist cinema tended to focus on those noirs (e. there have also been those that attempted to rework noir by placing women in the investigative rather than criminal role. 1991). Black Widow (Rafelson.170 Postmodern Chick Flicks neo-noir and the cultish male-orientated postmodernist cinema of the early 1990s with a feminist thematic emphasis on masculinity as a social and cultural ‘problem’. professional women. offering boundless opportunities to rework well-worn crime plot devices. This has long been the structuring narrative of many male-centred Hollywood crime dramas but the gender switch is still remarkably effective in reinvigorating a wide range of investigative/suspense narratives. obnoxious and unfeminine. For example. As the growing numbers of popular texts dealing with women in highprofile. medics and criminal investigators are represented more favourably. on-screen female lawyers. blood and guts sensationalism of much neo-noir with a preoccupation with the ethical and personal dilemmas experienced by young. The generically familiar moral and ethical conflict with superiors is heightened by a gendered clash of attitudes and approaches. and more likely to be swayed by personal interests and issues (Lucia. 1987) or The Silence of the Lambs (Demme. films such as Katherine Bigelow’s Blue Steel (1990) in which a female trainee cop is stalked by a serial killer.g. 2005: 23) This is also apparent in the treatment of female investigators. but the tendency to over-invest is often combined with a more positive – if still stereotypical – ability to empathise and an enhanced perceptiveness in key female investigator films such as Coma (Crichton. As in literary and television female-orientated crime fiction. Cynthia Lucia’s analysis of the cinematic treatment of women lawyers points out that they are often presented as less objective than their male counterparts. and romantic involvement with criminals is invested with a new erotic charge. traditionally male-dominated working environments testifies. Double Indemnity) which reworked the gullible-man-meets-schemingseductress plotline. 1978). The on-screen depiction of female professionals draws a fine line between dedication and an obsession which is associated with failure in the personal sphere.4 It is interesting to note that if women working in ‘business’ or the financial sector are still often portrayed as pushy. this scenario has become a fertile source of dramatic action. the form thrives . merge the raw.
a sense of impending doom. inexperienced heroine by the seductive advances of a powerful. Cowie argues that the neglect of womancentred classical noir illustrates the tendency for noir critics – even those who are highly attentive to noir’s gender dynamics – to construct a noir corpus largely based around the ‘hard-boiled’ writing school and the prominence of the male private eye. chiaroscuro lighting and. a genre preoccupied with the problems of male identity. Cowie also questions the distinction between the ‘woman’s paranoia’ cycle and classical noir. ‘whoddunit’ story – there are as number of well-known classical texts structured by a female investigative gaze. perhaps more importantly. 1949). As noir is a form defined as much by these tonal or formal aspects as by plot or story line in the conventional sense (although here too there are similarities). received little attention. Cowie’s observation tells us much about the way in which noir has been increasingly critically (re)constructed as a male genre. inevitably feeds into attitudes and approaches to neo-noir. one which has. In her illuminating reappraisal of classical noir Elizabeth Cowie suggests that even within classical film noir – as opposed to the genteel. it could be argued that female-investigator noirs although clearly influenced by feminism are also paying homage to an alternative noir offshoot. But if the overtly politicised ‘liberal’ outlook of much recent women’s crime fiction marks it as a distinctly 1990s/2000s phenomenon. thus far. the two forms nevertheless share a number of common features: a central enigma. off-balance shot composition.Neo-Noir and Noir-Lite 171 on the tension between patriarchal notions of law and order and the female detectives’ own code of honour and practice. it plays on the potential threat posed to the young. Bearing this in mind. Critics have generally focused on its status as action cinema yet its police procedural framework is also intertwined with an exploration of the dark side of the romance fantasy. Drawing on what could be described as the noirish elements of the woman’s paranoia film. Katherine Bigelow’s Blue Steel (Bigelow. wealthy older man. although classical noirs sometimes featured women in the unofficial role of investigator. As Cowie points out. 1990) is an interesting example of this form. the figure of the female detective is not solely a feminist-inspired reversal of the norm. Citing examples such as The Secret beyond the Door (Lang. for reason of verisimilitude they were . The investigative process is often dually focused on crime and the structural sexism of the law enforcement hierarchy. as I have already suggested. This is an assumption which. Despite the urban/masculine and feminine/ domestic contrast. occasionally female-led. 1948) and The Reckless Moment (Ophuls. that is to say.
‘Buddy’. in this case Hispanic. doomladen atmosphere associated with the classical form is replaced by an altogether jollier screwball comedy approach to the criminal underworld. Out of Sight is based on an acclaimed crime novel (by Elmore Leonard). although it was generally promoted as a straight neo-noir. Firstly. intelligent and tough while retaining a healthy degree of distance towards the macho antics of male officers. a ‘feminised’ noir or ‘noir-lite’ in which the fatalistic. In the first of the two 1990s noir hybrids I want to look at. Secondly. Similarly. prison bust and the pursuit of a final big heist which will allow protagonist Foley and self-consciously named criminal sidekick. Despite its convoluted structure (use of flashback and so forth). the focal point of the narrative is the protracted sexual frisson between state marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) and bank robber Jack Foley (George Clooney). Sisco is a composite of positive male and female attributes. In addition to the powerful presence of one of America’s premier male heart-throbs. articulate and resourceful Sisco is far closer to the new female investigator of much recent feminist crime fiction than the femme fatale of previous neo-noirs. Like other acclaimed recent noirs – LA Confidential and Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. to retire from the criminal underworld. Sexy without being objectified. 1998). Indeed. The core narrative is clearly Sisco’s romantic and official pursuit of fugitive Foley. Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (Soderbergh. the depiction of the smart.172 Postmodern Chick Flicks rarely depicted as either lone private detectives or state officers. The narrative possibilities offered by the now plausible representation of female law enforcers have been eagerly seized on in a number of recent policeprocedural or neo-noir films. Out of Sight is less a typical femme fatale/deathly desire noir (or even a gender-switch reworking of this theme) and more ‘noir meets romantic comedy’. his underlying decency is constantly underlined and set against . Foley is appropriately masculine and ‘exciting’ without being overtly threatening or aggressive in the manner of the gothic male hero. the leading male protagonist embodies a masculinity more often associated with another female-orientated genre – romance fiction – than that of the hard-boiled detective or criminal. Out of Sight seems primed to appeal to the female audience in several key respects. the romance plot overshadows what is – in noirish terms – an unusually transparent and fairly weak crime plot. by whom she is captured in the initial prison bust out. Like Jackie Brown. in the leading role and contains the still rare Hollywood depiction of a white male/ethnic female romance. it features an ethnic woman. this largely consists of a failed bank robbery.
Foley is a witty.Neo-Noir and Noir-Lite 173 From Out of Sight. the other an actual event but presented in the manner of a dream or fantasy. Eschewing violence whenever possible. both scenes are framed . His gentlemanly code of conduct is also displayed in the kidnap scene. the corruption and cruelty of lesser criminals. 1998. Significantly. Foley’s status as an archetypal figure of heterosexual female fantasy is constantly alluded to within the text. one a dream sequence. the film contains two slightly surreal sexual encounters. with many references to female attraction to ‘rough trade’ and the rather disingenuous intratextual denial that this may be what motivates Sisco’s attraction to him. Thus in the opening scene Foley manages to rob a vast corporate bank largely by flirting with the female cashier. whose courteous and protective behaviour towards vulnerable women and weaker men (a category which includes the majority of the male cast) compensates for his petty offences. In addition to this. in which he quickly assures Sisco that he has no intention of ‘forcing himself’ on her. lovable rogue.
freeze frames and the obligatory smart-arse cinematic referentialism. is a more complex mixture of male and female viewpoints. in a later scene. discuss the merits of various well-known gangster films. As in the dream sequence. in which they are more clearly positioned as criminal/police officer are more conventional). aware of its existence) its significance as such is accentuated in the following scene. agile and in control (fully dressed and armed while Foley is naked and vulnerable) whereas in the hospital scene. As the protagonists wake up in bed together (a naturalistic scene) we are clearly meant to understand that the encounter has taken place. The second scene. yet the preceding scene. predatory advertising executives. creeps into Foley’s hotel hideout and climbs into his bath. Michael Keaton produces an ironic reworking of his Jackie Brown role as the incompetent FBI agent. the tacit acknowledgment that men like Foley are an idealised feminine fantasy. his timely appearance wards off a group of arrogant.174 Postmodern Chick Flicks from Sisco’s perspective. in which Sisco awakes in her hospital bed after escaping a minor car crash during the prison bustout and her ‘capture’ by Foley. In the dream sequence. If the two fantasy/dream sequences reinforce the film’s strongest overall theme – that of forbidden passion and the romance which can only exist ‘out of sight’ due to the couples’ respective positions on either side of the law (other meetings. Although the audience is initially unaware that this is a dream/fantasy sequence (while the hotel room is in the film’s terms ‘real’ she is not. which fast cuts back and forth between the hotel bar conversation and Sisco undressing (apparently in the hotel lobby). The first of these occurs early on in the film when Sisco. in a wider sense. Foley’s new mannish sensitivity is emphasised in contrast with the boorish behaviour of other males. In the opening sequence Sisco and Foley. leaves us unclear how much of this is another of her lust-fuelled fantasies. together in the trunk of the get-a-way vehicle. the film also suggests another dimension to the theme of impossible love. Out of Sight utilises many of the standard features associated with neo-noir and. youth-orientated postmodernist cinema to explore female desire and . But like Soderbergh’s previous low-budget hit. which also takes place in a hotel. patronised by her overbearing but affectionate father and belittled by a senior FBI colleague. Out of Sight contains many of the hallmarks associated with directors (such as Scorsese and Tarantino) who tend to appeal to young male audiences’ loud funky soundtrack. she is treated little better than a naughty schoolgirl. in this case. Sisco appears confident. gun in hand. Sex. at this point. while. Lies and Videotape (Soderbergh. lots of jump cuts. 1989).
One way in which the increasingly parodic and derivative neo-noirs of the early 1990s attempted to revive the genre’s flagging fortunes was to include increasingly graphic depictions of sex and violence. what is also striking about Out of Sight’s depiction of violence is the way in which it is also strongly informed by racial difference. but a clear distinction is drawn between the lovable petty-criminals (Buddy. the emergence of ‘popular’ postmodernist cinema has been strongly identified with debates about escalating levels of on-screen violence. the popularity of new directors like Tarantino and the new mode of popular postmodernist filmmaking was bound up with censorship wrangles concerning the levels of violence in films such as Reservoir Dogs.Neo-Noir and Noir-Lite 175 romantic expectation in a manner more typical of the postmodernist romantic comedy or melodrama. drug-related assault – probably the nastiest event in the film – is hazy and dreamlike. loyalty. In short. In contrast. thus the scene in which the inept petty criminal Glen takes part in a bloody. The third key factor which suggests that the text is consciously attempting to reach a wider. cross-gender audience is its approach to verbal abuse and explicit violence. the black boxer. the relation between noir’s pervading sense of darkness and danger and the film’s racial logic. Buddy. However. At the same time. 1992). and a chivalrous respect for women – scenes of graphic violence are kept to a minimum. The film features a range of non-white characters – including a Hispanic female protagonist and Foley’s conscience-ridden Afro-American sidekick. Julian Murphet (1989) draws attention to what he describes as noir’s racial unconscious. Popular postmodernist texts – such as Reservoir Dogs or Scorcese’s Goodfellas (1990) – revel in a mode of ‘tough-guy’ masculinity that offends and alienates many viewers. honesty. 1994) or Pulp Fiction. Murphet points to the black migration to northern industrial cities and the development of Afro-American street culture throughout the first part of the century as an important – if rarely acknowledged – socio-historical background which frames the aesthetic and thematic . Many critics were particularly disturbed by the way in which the vernacular wit and charm displayed by the leading characters in these texts (with whom the audience is encouraged to identify) went hand-in-hand with an extraordinary capacity for brutality and astonishing levels of misogyny and homophobia (Taubin. Although the film has an undercurrent of menace. while Out of Sight celebrates certain traditionally masculine virtues – namely. Natural Born Killers (Stone. Glen and Foley) and the sadistic gang led by ‘Snoop’. that is. for around the past fifteen years. In his analysis of classical noir. this kind of action tends to take place off-screen or in muted form.
As I indicated earlier. individualist framework. is also foregrounded in Bigelow’s 1995 tech-noir. drug pusher or minor gang member. But if ethnic women now function as street-wise heroines in recent crime fiction. sassy and upwardly mobile. the figure of woman in classical noir is overburdened by the weight of white male anxieties concerning both racial and sexual difference. working-class heroine in recent years is offset by Samuel L. This dynamic as I will argue below. Similarly. Noir’s excessive sexism suggests an illegitimate subtext of racist polemics which. In Out of Sight the line between lovable rogue and sadistic gangster or rapist is sharply drawn between the chivalrous Foley and Snoop’s mainly black gang (the one white member is overweight and incompetent rather than evil). in all three films. It is an absence which masks another. Viewed in this context. black men are either cuddly and subservient (Buddy) or menacing and dangerous. . Furthermore. the white hero’s experience of the urban street as a dangerous. I am arguing. many of the recent neo-noirs feature Afro-American characters in prominent roles. the non-white female protagonist is awarded a level of intelligence and depth of character denied to the one-dimensional. white ‘killer bimbos’ of the previous neo-noir cycle. but Murphet also argues for the interrelation of gender/race in the constitution of classical noir’s paranoic. indeed. is alluded to by the absence of woman from the spatial seme of the street. in Murphet’s view. and are depicted as smart. The film even goes so far as to depict the suave Foley rescuing Sisco from the threat of sexual violence at the hands of the scary black criminal. The idea of race as an unconscious presence in classical noir is a useful starting point for considering the interrelation of gender/race in recent noir variants. Jackie Brown and Out of Sight have relationships between white men and ethnic women at their core. 1989: 26) Thus. alien space suggests a subliminal textual recognition of this shift in the cultural/ethnic landscape which is also manifested in noir’s distinctive lighting effects. Jackson’s familiar portrayal of the scary black gangster abusing his white ‘ho’. Noir is often understood in relation to the rise of the ‘independent’ woman and women’s increased economic opportunity. (Murphet. He states: What I am going to call a racial unconscious can be seen to determine certain symptomatic effects. Strange Days. deeper absence.176 Postmodern Chick Flicks preoccupations of classical noir. in Jackie Brown one of the more complex and unusually sympathetic representations of a struggling black. black men are often relegated to the roles of pimp.
The significant gender difference in neo-noir’s racial dynamics may at some level also register the recent US cultural phenomenon in which young black women are increasingly moving up the social scale – achieving educationally and securing professional jobs – while their male counterparts slide further down. and. the text’s overall treatment of masculinity correlates with a wider tendency in which men are depicted as struggling to retain power or come to terms with a culture in which male authority is no longer taken for granted. debates on unequal gender achievement are often informed by the sexist assumption that it is peculiar and undesirable for females of any class or ethnic group to out-achieve males (Garrett. as the amoral criminal other of mainstream society. Similarly. in this genre at least. However. 2005: 118). As in recent British discussions concerning the gap between the educational achievements of boys and girls. 2004) appropriates the ‘hipness’ of black criminality identified by critics such as Susan Fraiman and particularly associated with Tarantino’s films. although Out of Sight projects the worst male behaviour onto young black men. although the discourse of filmic post-feminism is usually associated with white. . in Murphet’s argument. as I also want to suggest in relation to my next example of contemporary noir. postmodernist texts (Holmlund. Nevertheless. Indeed. 2003). middle-class heroines. Similarly. the blend of female professionalism and (selfconscious) romance fantasy adheres to the pattern established by earlier female-orientated post-feminist. rationalising such racist stereotyping through its association with a ‘progressive’ attitude towards gender relations. 1997: 137). the figure of the young black male functions in a traditional racist rather than ironic manner. As Chris Holmlund argues in her analysis of the film.Neo-Noir and Noir-Lite 177 The repressed threat of black street culture which. the marked difference in representations of black men and women in recent postmodernist cinema suggests that while the cultural representation of the female figure is becoming increasingly varied and complex. functions as an unacknowledged backdrop to classical noir becomes all too apparent in these texts. 2001 and Ocean’s Twelve. in Out of Sight and Jackie Brown upwardly mobile black women are seen to choose older white men over younger black men on precisely these grounds. in 1998 J. Lo was still sufficiently ‘street’ to add noirish credibility without carrying the more negative associations of black street culture for white audiences. but without the menace (Fraiman. encompassing and connecting a range of social and cultural ideas and fantasies. Clooney’s depiction of Foley (extended in his performances in Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven. in particular as a threat to white women.
Tarnished by his sleazy porn-merchant lifestyle.178 Postmodern Chick Flicks Tech-Noir. Like Blade Runner (1982). male noir detective. in many ways. One of the reasons why Blade Runner remains a key postmodernist film is that it is a rare example of a text which not only blends different genres. Bigelow clearly aspires towards the kind of subtle scifi-noir genre blending most successfully demonstrated in that quintessential postmodernist classic. The Last Seduction). But what is also interesting about Strange Days is the way in which questions of subjectivity. In Strange Days. As the cycle developed this figure was slowly eclipsed by the femme fatale. race and gender are addressed through its metacritical thematic concern with the cinematic apparatus itself. but also brings together the aesthetic techniques associated with postmodernist film (genre blending. from a feminist perspective. is clearly the focal point of the narrative. 1995) – the ‘problem’ of male identity in the late twentieth century is also pushed to the forefront of the text. In this respect. Lenny Nero. existential elements of noir into the bleak. the ironic re-invention of the noir hero) with a thoughtful. male protagonist. dystopian sci-fi which mixes the intratextual interest in postmodern technologies and consumer culture with the aesthetic sophistication and self-consciousness of many neo-noir texts. the white. Strange Days is also an example of extrapolative. becoming increasingly ridiculous or marginal (Basic Instinct. As I have already suggested. techno-action movies which initially attracted this label. as a film made in the late 1990s. . a more specifically noirish example of tech-noir. and provides an alternative to the overt machismo of many recent cyberpunk film heroes. one of the most interesting developments in the more obviously derivative forms of neo-noir throughout the late 1980s and 1990s was the progressive disempowerment of the male protagonist. Nero is a far cry from the romantic antiheroism of Blade Runner’s Deckard (Harrison Ford). cyberpunk and masculinity In the second of the two noir hybrids – Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (Bigelow.5 However. Strange Days attempts to integrate the more complex. Strange Days. critical exploration of the broader philosophical and socio-economic implications of ‘the postmodern condition’. is also. yet he is also a genuine loser (the name implies both decadence and a play on ‘no hero’). Blade Runner. it also goes much further than Blade Runner in reexamining the figure of the white. Associated with Terminator and Aliens director James Cameron (who provided the screenplay). a subcycle of 1990s scifi-noir blends. rejected by one woman and infantilised by another. than many of the dystopian big-budget. futuristic urban backdrop commonly found in many recent tech-noir blockbusters.
there is a strong strand in cyberpunk cinema which revels in overblown. arguing that cyberpunk’s enthusiasm for polarised gender differences. This gendered approach to cinematic cyberspace was. 1984). In everyday usage electronic microcircuitry and computer technology make for an obsolete. almost cartoonish representations of cybernetically enhanced masculinity and femininity. yet still remain the focus of moral authority and primary figure for reader identification. Popular films such as Robocop (Verhoeven. cyberpunk fiction developed the concept of cyberspace as a space to be ‘jacked into’ by cyber ‘cowboys’. hero Case is a direct descendent of the cynical. Claudia Springer argues that far from erasing or undermining oppressive modes of sexual difference. In Springer’s view. such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer (Gibson.7 Thus in cyberpunk ‘classics’. or at least rather underused. the most advanced areas of (post) modern technology tend to be small and smart rather than big and bulky.Neo-Noir and Noir-Lite 179 As some feminist critics have noted. 1987) and The Terminator are obvious examples of this tendency towards the exaggeration of gendered features and. in particular. Although Gibson and Sterling do not envisage the ‘external’ physical enhancement of the body in cyberspace. in relatively early examples of cinematic cyberpunk – such as The Lawnmower Man (Leonard. unlike the heavy industrial machines of the mechanical age (which did at least lend themselves to fictionalised fantasies of masculine potency and energy). taking on the muscular shape associated with steroid-enhanced bodybuilders. cyberpunk cowboys frequently take a beating and are at the mercy of more powerful forces. the accentuation of male physical power (Springer. Thus. often based on archaic notions of physical difference suggests a deep seated reluctance to address the possibilities that the exploration of ‘virtual’ space or prosthetic body enhancement offers for freeing the human species from biologically based gender distinctions. the popularisation of this masculine conception of cyberspace is particularly ironic given that. popular filmic cyberpunk tends to reproduce highly conventional gender roles in a futuristic high-tech context where they need no longer exist. Even in filmic representations of virtual space. cerebral power frequently takes on a human shape with heightened sexual characteristics. in her comprehensive overview of cyberpunk novels and films. Like the noir hero. 1996: 95–124). 1992) – the feeble and childlike Jobe is transformed – in cyberspace – into ‘cyberbeefcake’. where ‘real’ bodies are shed. . an amorphous ‘feminine’ space which provides the backdrop for male adventure and conquest much in the manner of the Wild West or noir’s mean streets. inherited from the work of popular cyberpunk writers such as Bruce Sterling and William Gibson.6 For example. in some respects. hard-boiled noir hero.
in The Matrix (Wachowski. . The trademark.180 Postmodern Chick Flicks body. united against the perverse male desire to control and manipulate human and alien reproduction. 1997) – on which Creed bases much of her analysis. body-horror misogyny which Creed detected in the director’s work ten years earlier. Springer’s 1996 critique of contemporary cyberpunk/sci-fi echoes many of the early points made by Creed in her analysis of neo-noir and postmodernist science fiction in 1989. 1999). filmic cyberpunk compensates for this potential loss of masculine power by imagining new technologies in hypermasculine form. that is. although the hard. Springer views much contemporary cyberpunk cinema as driven by a patriarchal fear that advanced technologies – such as artificial intelligence or cybernetic body enhancement – will progressively undermine the superior status awarded to male minds and bodies. reproductive body-horror imagery still dominates the series. 1992) and Alien Resurrection (Jeunet. muscular shape favoured by earlier cyberheroes has been somewhat scaled down to human form. 1979). the conquest of cyberspace still relies on the mastery of combat skills and physical agility defined in masculine terms. through muscular cyborgs. For example the Alien series – Alien (Scott. Thus in the most recent addition to the series the two female characters are the clear repository of ‘humane’ values. hard-boiled hero. there have also been significant shifts in the production of tech-noir and more general sci-fi texts which problematise the rather bleak view developed by Creed (1987) and later Springer. 1982) Alien 3 (Fincher. Similarly. intelligent female protagonist and the films’ thematic critique of male-dominated techno-science. Like Creed. its horrified fascination with the reproductive capacity of the female body is consistently undercut by the equally central presence of an unusually strong. cyberpunk manages to remake the computer ‘nerd’ into an agile. David Cronenburg’s Existenze (Cronenburg. in Springer’s view. If early ‘body horror’ registered this through a warped vision of the female reproductive system and the fear of what Creed describes as ‘becoming woman’ (through penetration of the male body. By an extraordinary sleight of hand. 1996: 73). 1998) provides a textbook example of the kind of gynecological. has become more informed by feminist values with each sequel. as with neo-noir. Aliens (Cameron. As Springer puts it: ‘Cyberpunk fiction explicitly transforms the passivity induced by electronic technology into forceful energy’ (Springer. or exaggerated ‘virtual’ sexual difference. This analysis still provides a powerful explanation of the blatant gynophobia manifested in some recent films. Nevertheless. grotesque depictions of alien gestation and birth and so on).
incompetent protagonists of recent neo-noir than the cyberspace warriors of films such as The Matrix. 1987: 52) through either male victimisation or re-empowerment. its proximity to these media allow for the plausible depiction of playback within conventional cinema. spectatorship and gender. this proximity also gives it a self-conscious metalinguistic edge which opens up questions concerning cinema. This frees Strange Days from the problem that many filmic cyberpunk texts have in attempting to convey visually the vertiginous excitement of the bodiless human form ‘jacking into’ cyberspace. The film’s interest in exploring different subject positions is foregrounded through its central techno-motif SQUID (superconducting quantum interference device) or ‘playback’. Lenny Nero is closer to the weak. It is perhaps not too surprising that one of the more acclaimed recent cyberspace texts – The Matrix – circumvents this problem by depicting the cyberspace matrix as a complete simulation of late twentieth century urban life which those within accept as real. Focusing on the figure of a failed professional (ex-cop). who seems slightly bemused by his loss of status and authority. often appear crude in comparison to the spectacle of even low-grade special effects in non-computer-based action forms. male recognition of other subjectivities. Similarly. while Strange Days attempts to emphasise differences between video/TV and SQUID/playback. Bigelow’s Strange Days blends aspects of cyberpunk with a female-led critique of the tech-noir universe. What is particularly intriguing here is the contrast between the film’s intradiegetic plotline – which attempts to uphold a classical distinction . More importantly. rather than staging what Creed describes as ‘the loss of paternal authority’ (Creed. a wireless device for taping and replaying ‘real’ events with an added dimension of also recording the subject’s physical and mental responses. in terms of the film’s status as postmodernist noir. Strange Days moves towards rapprochement and a more willing white. Unlike many cyberpunk/tech-noir texts – which are concerned with digital/computer-based technologies – ‘playback’ is essentially an extension of the cinematic experience itself.Neo-Noir and Noir-Lite 181 In a similar manner. While this works surprisingly well in popular fiction – where readers can supplement the rather broad and unspecific descriptions offered by writers such as Gibson – visual representations in which three dimensional figures cavort in cyberspace (such as Tron. One of the most striking aspects of this film is the way in which it explores the notion of ‘becoming woman’ through identification and empathy rather than gynophobic repulsion or the compensatory machismo of filmic cyberpunk. directed by Lisberger in 1982 or The Lawnmower Man). However.
further accentuates her ‘privileged’ status as a survivor of real oppression. Mace’s stern disapproval of and unwillingness to experiment with playback technology is consistently linked to her level headedness. While this serves to highlight Lenny’s misguided faith in the ironically named. Both Lenny and Faith are corrupted by playback. While wealthy men . both the encounters with potential customers – one involving a middle-aged Japanese businessman. it also reinforces the notion that playback and. The relationship the film establishes between female objectification and playback is also reinforced through the contrast between Nero’s friend and protector Mace (Angela Bassett) and the vulnerable playback users. her ability to cope under pressure and willingness to earn an honest crust. It is no coincidence that Mace is the only character whose real memories – as opposed to artificially constructed playback reproductions – are shared with the viewer. Initially at least. in which she and Lenny go roller-skating (one of the rare clips that takes place in daylight) and subsequent scenes. Set in an apocalyptic. while the other female figures are reckless and selfdestructive.8 Lenny. in playback. in particular. Strange Days associates playback technology with the sleazier side of unlimited consumption. The fact that the memory sequence recounts a genuine first-hand trauma. constantly pouting and striking sultry poses. I love the way they see’. Although Nero’s latent decency is suggested by his unwillingness to deal in snuff ‘clips’. alternative present.182 Postmodern Chick Flicks between true experience and ‘false’ images – and the film’s own status as an exemplary form of all-action playback. by extension. Mace rises above the sleazy culture in which other characters are immersed. is defined through his preference for the visual – as ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliet Lewis) comments ‘I love your eyes Lenny. the other a prurient lawyer – present it as a technologically superior means of serving up seedy male fantasies and exploiting and objectifying women. As a struggling. Mace occupies a privileged position within the narrative. Faith becomes obsessed by her own image. cynical ‘post-playback’ Faith has become part of the demi-monde – heavily sexualised. or in front of a mirror. black single mother. in which her husband. playback appears to reinforce the conventional opposition between male voyeurism and female display. the father of her child. is dragged into police custody. alienated female identity. There is also a marked contrast between her initial waif-like naturalistic ‘playback’ appearance. he is unable to sustain ‘real’ relationships. Faith and Iris. in which the hardened. chameleonlike anti-heroine. continually berating Nero as a porn merchant who deals in ‘second-hand’ memories. tending to appear either on stage. other forms of reproductive apparatus inevitably lead to a distorted.
As Claudia Springer points out. suggests that she has undergone this transformation. Mace’s and Connor’s toughness is. The most famous example of this concerns another waitress turned warrior heroine – that of Sarah Connor’s metamorphosis from scatty youth to hardened killing machine and protector of the race in The Terminator. Yvonne Tasker links Mace’s role in the film to the wider depiction of ‘muscular maternal’ figures in recent action movies (Tasker. but her anger is that of the maternal tigress rather than the embittered rape victim. Her former passivity has been replaced with swift aggression. leather-clad appearance in subsequent scenes. However. Similarly. sexist social order. for her appeal on a feminist level is frequently undermined by her conventional patriarchal presentations … Whether she has been hardwired or not. like the victims of sexual abuse. Representations of the cyberpunk/technoir action woman range from the prosthetically/surgically enhanced (such as William Gibson’s Molly Millions) through to the more moderate muscular frame displayed by Mace.Neo-Noir and Noir-Lite 183 safely experience the dangers of the urban underworld through the traumatic experiences of others. justified through its association with an updated version of traditional notions of feminine virtue also manifested in the postmodernist melodrama. despite their apparent strength. in Strange Days the representation of the angry warrior woman is also bound up with the film’s attempt to address other social . 1998: 69). cyberpunk and cyborg fantasies. In this sense. Mace is awarded a degree of ‘authenticity’ and depth of character denied to the other characters. Ripley or The Terminator’s Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). her speed and decisiveness figure a computer’s abilities. (Springer. what these brittle figures tend to have in common is a personal history of abuse and victimisation: One scenario that has emerged with remarkable frequency is that of the cybernetic woman who seeks revenge for the emotional and sexual abuse she suffered as a child or young woman. in her discussion of Strange Days. Violated women and protective mothers are permitted the expression of rage and anger to a degree which would be unacceptable in other circumstances. 1996: 135) The marked contrast between the pink waitress uniform Mace sports during the police-raid memory sequence and her masculine. This figure is also a familiar aspect of the fictional worlds of tech-noir. Mace’s miseries are externally imposed by a racist. She is simultaneously one of the most compelling and one of the most problematic figures in Cyberpunk.
Like the film’s depiction of female strength. blood pressure and other ‘physiological disturbances’ were a routine physical responses experienced by filmgoers (Landsberg. its depiction of the strong single mother is somewhat ambivalent. Ironically. Firstly. there are obviously problems with the notion of playback as distinguished from conventional film or television. flighty white characters (particularly the women).9 Mace’s function as a socially. she is also painfully earnest.184 Postmodern Chick Flicks issues. Mace symbolises an authenticity linked to the black community and the protest movement led by Jeriko One. As I suggested earlier. the film’s intradiegetic plotline establishes a distinction between real experience and the shallow world of playback which is closely associated with the exploitation of women. This is typical of the way in which the scene draws the connection between the distanced pleasures of male fantasy and the real terrors that result from female objectification and powerlessness. Despite Nero’s sales pitch comment – ‘forget all that crap about it being like TV but better’ – playback is barely distinguishable from contemporary video technology. the text also suggests more interesting possibilities concerning the relationship between gender/subjectivity and representation that contradict its rather pious rejection of playback (and thus. As Alison Landsberg points out in her analysis of cyberpunk cinema and cultural anxiety about the loss of ‘real’ history/memory. at another level. by extension. Bigelow herself is a director celebrated for her superior ability to induce precisely these kinds of responses. defined wholly by her anger and made virtuous by suffering. Irrespective of the sexist bias which has helped to single her out as a woman working in what is . the scene in which Nero demands a more convincing sexual performance from his female playback porn stars is followed by a tense chase sequence in which the barely dressed Iris is aggressively pursued by two male police officers. even relatively early quantative assessments of cinema goers – such as the Payne Studies in the 1930s – established that changes in pulse rate. Yet. chaotic world reflects the film’s wider postmodern concern with the hedonistic excesses of late twentieth-century consumer culture and authentic and inauthentic modes of being. temperature. For example. Although Mace is defined ‘positively’ in comparison to the superficial. black single mother. historically grounded anchor point in an ephemeral. 1995: 180). particularly the endemic racism of American culture. cinema itself). Not just a mother but a strong. Its advanced ability to offer emotional/physical responses ‘cut straight from the cerebral cortex’ negates the obvious fact that conventional cinema has long been able to induce these kinds of visceral effects.
far from constraining our experiences. 1993: 2) Strange Days is less successful in its use of experimental aesthetic techniques than Blue Steel. This possibility is addressed in tantalising ways throughout the text. for raw historical accounts or uncorrupted passion. Steven Shaviro begins his critique of cine-psychoanalysis by citing Blue Steel as a film so rich in awe-inspiring visual trickery that it illustrates the inadequacy of a theory based on lack when faced with the ‘fullness’ of the cinematic image: Bigelow pushes the action film’s tired formulas to a point of delirious frenzy through specifically cinematographic means. in this case. but it is certainly stylised enough to cast doubt upon the film’s surface plotline opposition between genuine first-hand experience and superficial. reproductive technologies enhance perception by allowing viewers to experience the consciousness of ‘the other’. If playback encourages its users to retreat into a fantasy world. it also. thrill-inducing reproductive technologies. (Shaviro. although we witness the killing of Jeriko One via Mace’s experience of a white woman’s consciousness. For example. unmediated by the intrusive presence of fantasy and fictional devices. heighten a serial killer’s excitement. to objectify and exploit women and. Bigelow’s films do tend to privilege bizarre lighting effects. and have always been.Neo-Noir and Noir-Lite 185 still regarded as the masculine idiom of the action genre. use of slow motion and unusual shots and angles over plot and characterisation. postmodernist self-consciousness highlights the way in which our understanding and evaluation of subjective experience. dangerous. there is also much in Strange Days which suggests that. Thus in The Cinematic Body. filtered through dominant cultural fictions and discursive structures. weird dream sequences. in its most horrifying form. Blue Steel is a perverse and powerfully stylised exercise in visual excess. There is something rather disingenuous about a film which attempts to lecture the audience about the dangers of vicarious identification and the seductive allure of the visual image while simultaneously working to engage the spectator through the full range of sophisticated visual effects. The film therefore connects with forms such as the postmodernist romantic comedy and costume drama by containing. like cinema. offers a means of accessing other subjectivities and modes of experience through visual images and emotions. the sequence does not . relationships and past events are. a tacit acknowledgement that while living within the ‘postmodern condition’ may heighten the desire for ‘real’ experience. Furthermore.
it is in relation to gender issues that Strange Days adopts a more experimental approach to playback. we see him writhing in pleasure during a teenage girl’s shower clip. Similarly. objectifying gaze (requiring distance) and the more experiential shift in gender consciousness displayed here. concludes his list of playback goodies with the promise that the male attorney can ‘be a girl’. At first glance the scene appears to conform to the usual porno trope in which the male gaze fetishes female auto-erotism. this willingness to explore the feminine in close proximity and to embody ‘the other’ suggests a willing suspension of male power which is absent from many cyberpunk and indeed. your shrink ‘and so forth. Along with the more obvious interest in cross-gender sexuality. In the scene in which Nero describes the erotic possibilities of playback to a potential male client. The scene in which Nero witnesses and experiences the killing of prostitute Iris is a turning point in the film. William Gibson’s Neuromancer is exemplary in this respect. even in passages in which the male ‘cybercowboy’ (Case) ‘switches’ directly into the consciousness of Molly Millions for fairly lengthy periods of time. expelled. Gibson studiously circumvents any issues around gender cross-identification which might have arisen in the text. rejected and turned back . In the following scene. ‘ I’m your priest. Given the emphasis in many cyberpunk and tech-noir films on the desperate preservation of an accentuated form of masculinity or the disgust and gynophobia activated by the threat of ‘becoming woman’. In contrast. his split identification leading to a more enlightened view of women as he recoils from identification with killer and experiences Iris’s pain and terror. his Faustian speech. The ‘victim’ role is not. noir texts. as in Creed’s analysis. the text’s suspense/thriller plot requires that male characters simultaneously experience a horrifying murder from the perspective of both male killer and female victim. the scene in which Nero’s wheelchair-user friend taps into the physical and mental sensations of an able bodied jogger closes ambiguously. However.186 Postmodern Chick Flicks explicitly draw attention to the implications of this. The film explores the possibility of ‘becoming woman’ through an emphathy based on experience rather than disgust or horror. But there is a significant difference between the external. the treatment of playback in Strange Days seems unable to avoid this issue. his response suggesting both pleasure and a heightened awareness of his real physical deprivation. for while it includes a technical device which is remarkably similar to playback (known in the text’s vernacular as ‘stim-stim’ or stimulated-stimulus) as Springer and other feminist critics have commented.
the blame is not projected onto castrating female figures in the manner of early neo-noirs but on the reckless behaviour exhibited by anti-heroes such as Jack Foley and Lenny Nero. non-genre-specific sense. Furthermore. of mutual respect and enlightenment between the weakened male hero and female heroine. used as both an instrument of torture by the murderer. playback is morally ambivalent. As in Out of Sight. the unavoidable implications of playback as analogy of cinema itself undercut the film’s overt denigration of the form and the association it initially draws between visual representation and the exploitation and objectification of women. Although Out of Sight and Strange Days are still preoccupied with the loss of paternal authority. social and sexual power. even at the localised plot/suspense level of the text. becoming a starting point for empathy and identification. as the film suggests. many popular texts of this period draw a crude link between male instability. Although this is always mediated by the spectator’s own subject position. and. there is a sense of rapprochement. the initial admonishment of the erring female soon gives way to a tongue-in-cheek celebration of the cartoonish female villainess. but brought directly into the male protagonist’s consciousness. it is nevertheless an extraordinarily powerful means of addressing or re-addressing the perceptions of others. Max (heightening the victim’s terror by feeding it back to them) yet it also provides the key piece of evidence which finally exposes the racist killers to the higher ranks of the LAPD. family breakdown and women’s increased educational. Interestingly. However. even within neo-noir. The film’s overall logic implies that while video technologies may well allow for the degradation and objectification of others they can also be very effective at allowing the viewer access to other modes of subjectivity and experience. Manifested through the figure of the vilified femme fatale of early neonoir. at the level of political and cultural debate. In a more general. Despite its unsatisfactory conclusion which re-establishes power in the ‘legitimate’ hands of an older white male police chief – Strange Days generally works against the filmic cyberpunk and noir preoccupation with either restoring male authority or lamenting its decline.Neo-Noir and Noir-Lite 187 upon the victim as hostility. knowledge and authority. a Right wing backlash against feminism. Creed’s analysis of the misogynistic fear of ‘becoming woman’ captured a dominant mood in the late 1980s and early 1990s cinema which can be linked to both the philosophical concern with the postmodern crisis of power. . the later examples discussed here work against Creed’s dire prognosis for popular postmodernist forms.
188 Postmodern Chick Flicks If early 1990s neo-noir derived much from the backlash culture of the American Right. the depiction of Mace as female vigilante is specifically connected to an older. In Strange Days. Alongside the inclusion of the melodramatic ‘woman as redeemer’ figure and the priority awarded to social bonds and relationships. Conversely. an ageing bank-robber with no formal qualifications and a sleazy. more recent noirs connect feminist critiques of masculinity with the older notions of female moral supremacy. both Out of Sight and Strange Days confer this privilege on street-wise ethnic women. unable to hold down a reasonable job are relatively disempowered. In this manner. responsible citizens. melodramatic ethic of female victimhood and moral supremacy which is also present in the postmodernist melodrama. While classical noirs situated the male detective as the agent of moral authority. What is particularly striking about these recent crime fiction/noir variants is their generic debt to the codes and conventions of the new female-associated filmic forms. the two male protagonists in question. . Strange Days and Out of Sight depict men as unable to function effectively in the postmodern world. In their recognition of female strength and ingenuity these films capture and narrativise a wider shift in attitudes towards shifting gender/ power roles. connecting these with noir’s more traditional concerns with white male authority and the fear of urban crime and lawlessness. porn merchant. their female counterparts are depicted as hardworking. these neo-noirs amalgamate the codes and conventions of recent (nominally) female-orientated fiction with stylistic elements common to the ‘male-orientated’ postmodernist noir influenced crime fiction of the early 1990s. bringing together the previously domesticated figure of the woman as moral saviour with a positive portrayal of the working woman. in particular. Although sympathetically drawn. and in sharp opposition to the demonisation of women in early neo-noir.
often skewered towards maintaining existing power relations of gender. race and class.Conclusion Fiftiesness Revisited: Desperate Housewives on the Big Screen Much of the recent academic and critical work on memory and history assumes that we are in the grip of a cultural ‘memory crisis’. as ‘costume’ dramas. An increased attentiveness to the complex operations of the memory. has cast doubt even over eye witness accounts. the metafictional return to history eschews both realist objectivity and modernist subjectivism in favour of the selfconsciously mediated approach to history typified by the work of many popular contemporary writers such as Salman Rushdie. But the predominance of the visual in cinematic representations (rather than language or thought processes) inevitably draws attention towards costume and interiors and historically based films are still referred to. in a slightly disparaging sense that links them to the female audience. the matinee audience and the female melodrama. Ian McEwan or Rose Tremain. 189 . particularly the subject’s capacity to suppress and repress unwelcome memories and to perpetually work over past material in the light of contemporary feelings and experiences. Traditional ‘macro’ sources of historical knowledge have become – post-Lyotard and post postmodernism – viewed as suspect grand narratives. As I argued in the chapter on costume drama. literary historiographic metafictions address these contemporary concerns by integrating the critique of both broader socio-historical accounts and personal testimony into the very fabric of their narrative structures and strategies. Like the negative association between tears. the generic tag carries the burden of its association with women viewers: the costume drama remains a genre that is condemned for its preoccupation with feminine fripperies at the expense of a purer notion of historical authenticity. In literary postmodernism. Yet the veracity of subjective accounts and lived experience has also been undermined by psychoanalytic approaches to memory.
Costume and interiors shift from sumptuous background to a consciously foregrounded visual element that enhances – rather than detracts from – our perception of past class and gender relations. ‘interrogative’ mode of costume drama – films such as The Piano. 1992). The burgeoning self-conscious use of past references spawned the late 1970s and . 1980s and 1990s. took place gradually throughout the 1970s. Jameson’s influential 1984 analysis of postmodernist forms echoed the Frankfurt school’s critique of popular culture. styles and genres. lacking the depth and weight of authentic art and the aura that made art historically meaningful (Benjamin. wealth and sexual difference into the overall narrative framework. For example. As I argued in Chapter 1. the development of a postmodernist cinematic practice. integrate the meaning of such signifiers of status. Kracauer argued that new media technologies – particularly cinema – decontextualised and thus dehistorised the image (Kracauer.190 Postmodern Chick Flicks But historically based dramas can hardly avoid displaying material objects from the known past. The shadow of the Frankfurt school’s early twentieth-century analysis of the rise of reproductive technologies is apparent in more recent discussions of historical representation. Orlando and The Piano are among a handful of costume dramas that actually depict their heroines struggling with restrictive and cumbersome clothing rather than gliding gracefully along apparently unaware that there bodies are encased in whalebone corsets or crinolines. initially denouncing the popular postmodernist jumble of past images as essentially schizophrenic: a form that operated in a perpetual present. Rather than attempting to attach less significance to these. the recent. 1960). Debates on the perceived memory crisis have evolved hand in hand with the development of modern technologies of visual reproduction and the twentieth/ twenty-first-century dominance of visual media forms such as photography. In a similar manner. film and television. The issue of historical authenticity becomes even more problematic in relation to cinematic representations of the recent past. ‘middle-brow’ heritage cinema (that fawns over antiques and bustles) and a warts-and-all treatment of the past that does not dwell on such inauthentic ‘feminine’ pleasures. The nostalgia film was situated as the apotheosis of this schizoid ragbag of cultural images. a pastiche of generic forms that signified the past only through stylistic and formal features. Such films therefore successfully problematise the distinction between a glossy. offering no anchor point for insight or analysis. Orlando or The Hours. which is heavily reliant on prior forms. Benjamin’s early critique of mechanical reproduction viewed photography and film as ‘ghostly’ mediums. such as clothing and furniture.
Although Western Europe did not fully enjoy the fruits of the Fordist consumer boom until the early 1960s. provides an overwhelming and unmanageable excess of print. I will focus on the preponderance of depictions of 1950s homemakers – the original ‘desperate’ housewives – and the way in which this figure is revisited through the now-familiar postmodernist tropes of generic homage. despite the continued popularity of cinema and radio. My opening discussion of debates on postmodernism.Conclusion 191 early 1980s action blockbuster. 1993). home furnishings. clothes and popular music became the key signifiers of American cultural power and prestige from the early 1950s onwards. most homes in the US also owned a television. class and gender manifested in more recent cinematic depictions of fiftiesness. cars. In his later analysis of nostalgia. particularly in the second half of the twentieth century. and the more obviously derivative nostalgia film. Jameson modified his critique to consider this more subversive treatment of the recent past in the work of postmodernist auteurs such as David Lynch and. Alongside the increase of easily accessible media sources. defamiliarisation and irony. The perceived crisis in our understanding of recent history derives much from the sheer volume of twentieth-century historical sources. feminism and cinema reconsidered Jameson’s more positive view of these texts in the light of feminist critiques. By the end of the decade. Looking at the way in which new depictions of fiftiesness mediate current social concerns. in the US at least. in particular. small-budget independent cinema which both integrated and commented on older genres. the concept of fiftiesness in film texts such as Blue Velvet and Something Wild (Jameson. The chapter will consider the relatively rapid shift from the conservative idealisation of past gender roles in 1980s portrayals of the period to the obsessive concern with issues of race. The explosion of media production. yet it also produced more innovative forms of self-conscious. aural and visual media sources and cultural forms: an intensification of media output which is particularly associated with the 1950s. In this final section I want to return to the issue of fiftiesness and consider a recent cluster of film texts – from the late 1990s onwards – which return to this much-mythologised decade. The popular understanding of ‘fiftiesness’ actually begins with the ‘feel-good’ era of prosperity and . modern labour-saving devices. a thriving economy and Fordist production techniques fuelled a consumer boom and a technological and aesthetic revolution. and the way in which these films appeared to uncritically draw on past images of women which feminist found offensively anachronistic.
‘classic’ style and lifestyle accoutrements therefore fed directly into a cultural celebration of 1950s cultural forms and objects that was articulated as much through advertising (the ‘1950s’ Levi 501’s ads. a tempting subject for postmodernist plunder. Again. small-town suburban vision of itself. Similarly the celebratory and overtly nostalgic treatment of fiftiesness in . These interrelated socio-cultural phenomenon – burgeoning media output and a world of shiny. this takes us back to the cultural significance of films such as Blue Velvet or David Lynch’s later and lengthier television reworking of the pseudo-1950s small town. Its clearest reference point was undoubtedly the ‘must-see’ television output of the period – specifically. middle-class white version of suburban family life were particularly important in defining the 1980s interest in the period. This leads to the postmodernist phenomena noted by Jameson: a particular kind of 1980s ironic. The global popularity of American sitcoms which showcased a specific. As Jameson pointed out in his analysis of 1980s films. The 1980s boom in consumer choice. The latter are frequently based on classic nineteenth-century novels and a relatively fixed range of furnishings. a new postmodernist media sensibility was beginning to redefine a wide range of 1950s-associated cultural objects – both material and cultural – as both ‘classic’ and fashionably retro. a filmic treatment of the recent past shot through with references to prior television and filmic forms differs greatly from the more limited cultural reference points available for costume dramas. interiors and clothing whereas the former draws on an extraordinarily wide range of mid-twentieth-century visual. aural and narrative forms. or rather a self-consciously cliched notion of it. making the decade. Clearly. stylish new objects – feeds directly into the popular notion of ‘fiftiesness’. the neo-gothic Twin Peaks. They also exhibited an appreciative interest in contemporary cultural items such as clothes.192 Postmodern Chick Flicks affluence ushered in with the election of Eisenhower and the end of the Korean War in 1953. music and cars. the first situation comedies such as I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best. for example) as popular film. Postmodern fiftiesness in the 1980s By the 1980s. luxury products. The apparent gothicism is only effective as a counterpoint to the sanitised image presented by popular television during the period. those dealing with the 1950s used the period’s own film and television output as their key visual and ideological reference point. intentionally fake fiftiesness that either parodies or celebrates the decade’s own clean-cut.
1954) or the deep sense of youth alienation and frustration in Rebel without Cause (Ray. But the general ideological thrust of films such as Grease – and their sanitised view of 1950s teen rebellion – was a clear endorsement of a period depicted as more socially harmonious and community orientated than the post-permissive 1970s. nostalgic 1950s-based films. The production of overtly celebratory. pre-permissive fiftiesness actually began in the late 1970s with the popularity of the long-running television sitcom Happy Days and the teen musical. All the films draw on some. informed by the popular concept of televisual and filmic fiftiesness. Given the emphasis on masculine prowess in these cult classics. is thus clearly linked to the increasing power of the New Right and their attack on the perceived permissiveness and radical politics of the 1960s and 1970s. 2004) which draw on a more general sense of ‘fiftiesness’. The lovable naughtiness of 1950s male gang culture in Grease was a far cry from Marlon Brando’s menacing presence in The Wild Ones (Benedek. there is a underlying structure of binary oppositions which recurs within recent representations of fiftiesness. The late 1990s onwards has witnessed the production of another cluster of films that are. 1998) and The Stepford Wives (Oz. Something Wild or Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me countered the idealised sitcom conception of fiftiesness with a dose of gothic nastiness. Grease (Kleiser. 2003) (which are explicitly set in the 1950s).Conclusion 193 Back to the Future draws much from the self-idealising view apparent in the 1950s television shows. 2002) and Mona Lisa Smile (Newell. to a greater or lesser extent. such as Grease or Back to the Future. Ethnicity is defined solely in terms of a smattering of non-threatening Italian–American characters and women are bound by the sexual double standard. and Pleasantville (Ross. Despite the conflicting tone of these films and their different generic reference points – melodrama. they also brought a new element of violent misogyny into the frame. These include films such as Far from Heaven (Haynes. 1955). Films such as Blue Velvet. . the self-conscious reproduction of a particular kind of cosy. the youth rebellion film and so on. 2003: 122). 1978). But rather than countering the sexist stereotyping of the latter. I will also refer briefly back to the 1950s section of The Hours (discussed in more depth in the chapter on costume and period drama). black comedy. As Vera Dika notes in her analysis of nostalgia films. Dika’s analysis of late 1970s fiftiesness also highlights the manner in which elements of 1950s male youth rebellion returned in the cuddly and non-threatening form of figures such as Danny Zuko (John Travolta) in Grease in the late 1970s (Dika. their particular view of teen rebellion is not one that should necessarily be revisited.
sunny residential street. In Blue Velvet the protagonist discovers the gothic underside to the apparently harmonious small-town community. gays and blacks (although middle-aged white women are often the enforcers of this repressive regime). nostalgic television fantasy. the films tend to pit an amorphous. the domestic/ the public. a film that explicitly draws on and opposes the notion of fiftiesness established in 1980s filmic treatment of the decade. ill-defined notion of middle-aged white male authority against youth. the repressive small town/urban tolerance. Pleasantville adds another level of self-consciousness to the already culturally overloaded notion of fiftiesness. From adolescent males to bored housewives: Fiftiesness revisited I want to begin by looking at Pleasantville (Ross. allowing for an allegorical encounter between past and present. In a more general sense. real women/femininity as masquerade. male protagonist mirrors both Back to the Future and Blue Velvet and the initial view of the television town is uncannily similar to the opening sequence of Lynch’s cult classic – here presented as pure simulacra. However. by making the television reference explicit rather than oblique (like many 1980s films that replicate these forms) Pleasantville opens the theme of fiftiesness up for more direct allegorical purposes. . the white picket fence. of the following value-laded oppositions: social programming/ individualism. The visual signifiers associated with this chronotope. whereas in Back to the future troubled adolescent Marty McFly goes back to the cinematically real (but heavily mythologised) small-town 1950s to find the functional middle-class family that he has always dreamed of. small-town square and main street produces a particular kind of narrative in which the environmental and social boundaries are tested and explored. television/modern art. The Bakhtinian definition of the novelistic chronotope is also useful in explaining the preponderance of representations of small-town 1950s American. In many ways the film is less about the contrast between 1950s and late 1990s politics and attitudes and more about the difference between 1980s ‘fiftiesness’ and more recent views of the period. The concept of filmic fiftiesness is orientated around a particular spatial and temporal configuration. 1998). By actually situating its story within a regressive. women. The coming-of-age narrative interest in the expanding knowledge and power of a young. Pleasantville is as far removed from the ‘gothic’ oppositional postmodernist take on fiftiesness as it is from the more openly nostalgic.194 Postmodern Chick Flicks if not all.
in an often painfully didactic manner. more complex but colourful world of the post-permissive era. The opening shots. which showcase a contemporary TV channel devoted to black and white programming.Conclusion 195 mainstream celebratory retro fantasy of Grease or Back to the Future. The film’s concern with the experiential limits of the town’s inhabitants overlaps with the thematic interests of The Truman Show. If gothic fiftiesness sets sleaze and sexual exploitation against social conformity. Although the film draws humour from the sexual naivety and narrowness of the Pleasantville inhabitants. highlight the point that Pleasantville is not a rerun of an existing . tolerance and equality. Jim Carrey’s acting style playfully mimics that of the lovable 1950s sitcom dad and the media-constructed town resembles Pleasantville’s vision of a bygone post-war civic paradise. Played by Don Knotts – a figure famously associated with the safe. Pleasantville sets 1950s conformity – symbolised by the small town and the 1950s sitcom – against the richer. sitcom world of 1950s television through his roles in The Steve Allen Show (1956–61) and The Andy Griffiths Show (1960–68) – the repairman rewards Bud for his enthusiasm for the mock-1950s soap by allowing him to relocate to Pleasantville. The film’s central concerns are therefore the Orwellian themes of paranoia and alienation: it poses the existential question of whether it is better to live comfortably in bad faith or take the risk of individual ethical responsibility. Pleasantville also touches on the theme of security versus risk and integrity. the unconscious conservatism upon which this particular nostalgic fantasy is built. The film’s somewhat implausible founding premise is that two teenage twins in the 1990s – a nerdy brother and his streetwise sister – find themselves trapped in the world of a 1950s black and white television town by a mystical TV repairman. Pleasantville eschews the nasty underside of fiftiesness in favour of a utopian vision of freedom. the key function of black and white sitcom/soap opera theme is to pull part. Using a central metaphor of ‘black and white’ versus Technicolor. However. unlike the Pleasantville inhabitants Truman is the solitary victim of sophisticated media hoax. but this is framed less in terms of big-brother style media manipulation (despite the constructed nature of the Pleasantville environment) than as a direct attack on what is clearly shown as the ‘mythical’ and nostalgic concept of 1950s community and security. released the previous year (1998). Truman’s constructed world is also another version of ‘fiftiesness’. The film cleverly begins by highlighting all the reasons why such a fantasy is attractive to modern audiences before slowly demolishing its appeal.
such as jazz. But despite its surface commitment to gender and racial equality there are aspects of the film that suggest a buried unease with the challenge to white male authority. Aside from the odd joke about fat-laded 1950s recipes. Compared to 1980s treatments of fiftiesness – which either idealised it or countered it with violence and sexual abuse – the film clearly throws in its lot with the new social movements and identity politics of the 1960s and 1970s.196 Postmodern Chick Flicks 1950s show but a newly constructed. begin to make their mark. the town is eventually divided into two hostile camps: colour is associated with women and youth. experience and emotional depth as the ‘non-changist’ view of history is challenged by the newcomers and new cultural forms. David then returns home to find his single-parent mother (Jane Kaczmarek) preparing for a date and his slutty sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) planning to invite her boyfriend round to watch MTV. The Pleasantville inhabitants gain colour by acquiring knowledge. To drive home this point. the threat of sexual diseases and looming recession. eventually. David’s nerdy preoccupation with the warm-hearted family soap is thus narratively justified by everything we have witnessed up to the point at which he and Jen are mysteriously trapped inside Pleasantville. unable to successfully persuade an attractive young woman to date him. while the increasingly aggressive attempt to keep the town black and white (through book burning and the barring of ‘coloureds’ from certain areas of the town) is led by its white male elders. male-dominated mock-1950s fantasy. On one level the film endorses the curiosity of youth and the burgeoning independence and sexual awareness . The film then cuts between various teachers lecturing kids on ecological disaster. The contrast between monochrome and Technicolor is also obliquely linked to race politics with increasing references to the dangerous influences of colour and. the main thrust of the story from this point onwards is to expose the patriarchal and racist subtext of the all-white. Pleasantville is specifically advertised as a programme that takes the viewer back to ‘a kinder gentler time’. both women attempt to ignore his presence. shots of the Pleasantville world of perfectly maintained lawns and white picket fences are sequenced by the diffident hero Bud (Tobey Maguire) standing alone in the vast playground of a modern high school. Although David (now Bud) is ensconced in a conventional nuclear family with a servile. ‘coloureds’. In a manner typical of the cluster of new 1950s films. stay-at-home mother and a traditional 1950s sitcom dad. even he rapidly begins to find Pleasantville tedious and repressive. intentionally nostalgic version of this form.
Conclusion 197 of the female characters.H. Although Bud is nominally sympathetic to his Pleasantville mother’s growing independence. an act that she rewards with copious tears and much gratitude. when David returns to his real mother. the treatment of Bud’s sister and his on. Pleasantville is therefore less about challenging male authority than challenging its older and more obvious manifestations. Bud then steps in to protect his screen mother from the braying crowd. yet his real mother’s removal of make-up signifies her decision to give up her boyfriend and commit to the family unit. Despite paying lip service to more enlightened attitudes. a particularly dangerous occurrence as the town has never before encountered fire. In a more symbolic sense. Bud’s once promiscuous sister also renounces her sexuality and decides to continue her college education in Pleasantville. when Bud’s mother experiences her first (solitary) orgasm the tree outside her window ignites. Macy) is excluded from the new. In a similar manner. The town’s final descent into violence is actually triggered by the hostile ‘white’ mob catching sight of the diner-owner. It is no coincidence . Jen. slutty ways.and offscreen mothers suggests the lingering influence of a polarised view of women in which overt sexual behaviour cannot be easily combined with either maternal feelings or intelligence. yet on another female sexuality is registered as troubling and dangerous. More significantly. For example. convinced that returning to the present/real world would only encourage her to go back to her bad old. when Bud takes his new girlfriend to lover’s lane. ‘coloured’ family unit. Furthermore. Bud’s mother is made to bear the brunt of Pleasantville’s hostility to coloureds. Bud’s on-screen mother is encouraged to disguise her sexual awakening with white powder. he also encourages her to cover her face in white make-up to conceal the colour produced by her sexual awakening. Not only is Bud’s mother punished for her sexuality. impressionistic nude portrait of the housewife and mother. David wipes away her tears and make-up in a scene that echoes his earlier encounter with his Pleasantville mother. Mr Johnson’s colourful. This rather crude symbolism might be taken as parodying rather than endorsing the idea of female sexuality as dangerous and unruly were it not for the fact that the film applauds his controlling influence over both his new girlfriend and his on. the power relations in the family are also reversed. her growing sexual awareness is symbolised by plucking a shiny red apple from the tree and handing it to Bud.and off-screen mothers. As she sits sobbing at the table. but her on-screen son is finally placed in the powerful role of her protector while his inadequate screen father (William.
Far from Heaven illustrates the confusion and discomfort that circulates around this familiar figure.198 Postmodern Chick Flicks that by the end of the film David/Bud has managed to oust the old TV repairman. the treatment of the housewife and mother figure is a complex combination of hostility and sympathy. many of which hail from the 1950s. The Stepford Wives and Mona Lisa Smile are more clearly aimed at the female audience. while in Mona Lisa Smile a clip from Joseph Santely’s famous 1944 wartime propaganda documentary Rosie the Riveter (in which a female manual worker promises to give up her job for a man when the war finishes) is followed by a similar collage of shots of beaming brides. models and housewives. It is not surprising then that the articulation of fiftiesness in these films is particularly focused on the post-war idealisation of female domesticity. a term which has become synonymous with the notion of the ‘Stepford Wife’. old films and women’s lifestyle programmes. . To this extent Pleasantville is as much of an oedipal 1950s fantasy as Back to the future or Blue Velvet. on-screen father and his real mother’s boyfriend. Yet it also registers a more sceptical cultural attitude towards white. Far from Heaven. recognised and acknowledged. bathing beauties. As Pam Cook has pointed out. As in Pleasantville. Todd Haynes’s lavish Sirkian pastiche. in which the heroic young male also rescues the mother figure. In Pleasantville the nerdy. If the symbolic figure of 1980s fiftiesness is the male teen rebel. powerless David gains an attractive girlfriend and wins the respect and admiration of mother and his now appropriately chaste sister. overlaid by Elton John singing a patronising little ditty about what every girl dreams of (At the Heart of Every Girl). at least to some extent. The Stepford Wives sequence is accompanied by the mock-horror soundtrack that sets the tone for the film’s camp reworking of the original Stepford Wives. wins the girl and beats off the male competition. This is echoed by an almost identical array of images in the closing credits of Mona Lisa Smile. his ineffectual. the dominant figure in more recent treatments of the decade is undoubtedly the suburban 1950s homemaker. to emphasise this point the recent remake of The Stepford Wives begins with secession of clips from past television adverts. Indeed. male authority that demands that other forms of subjectivity are. Along with images of fashion and glamour (catwalks or expensively dressed women splayed out on sports cars) both sequences show a high proportion of clips depicting women gasping with delight at new kitchen appliances or slaving joyfully over husbands and children. If Pleasantville reworks the male oedipal fantasy via a structure of contemporary identity politics and attitudes.
However. emotional engagement. and with it. skewered sideon. the way in which the treatment of Frank’s painfully repressed homosexuality is frequently accompanied by dark greenish lighting. It is not so much that contemporary audiences delude themselves that problems such as racism or homophobia have disappeared in the years between Sirk’s productions and Haynes’s homage but that the filmic metalinguistic articulation of such conflicts and emotions has shifted so far as to negate an appeal to the modern heart couched in these terms.Conclusion 199 many critics viewed Haynes’s homage to Sirk as an aesthetic triumph but a spiritual and emotional failure. 2005: 14). Cook suggests that such negative responses to the film are themselves steeped in nostalgia. whereas our distance from this particular lexicon of melodramatic music and imagery ensures that these aspects of the film become coded as arch and ironic. glamorous and caring wife and mother who performs her domestic and social roles with skill and pleasure. Cathy is initially depicted as affluent. For example. this does inevitably entail a loss of credibility. the sumptuous period styling and faultless reproduction of Sirkian mise-en-scene only highlighting the film’s inability to generate a Sirkian affective response (Cook. Cook is right to point out that the film’s project must inevitably differ from Sirk’s own. While Pleasantville displays a masculine unease with female desire. a longing for the ‘real’ and authentic Sirkian product. Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) encourages a distanced. its treatment of the central protagonist. clichéd. bold and confrontational. Far from being a bored housewife she delights in her fashionably furnished house (with new high-tech gadgetry) and her social standing as a . The intensity of the Sirkian landscape and film score carried the hothouse atmosphere of repressed emotion in his classic melodramas. Aside from these compositional. the more obviously women-centred Far from Heaven registers both sympathy and anger towards the figure of the 1950s homemaker. She argues that the film should be evaluated as a reworking of typical Sirkian themes and imagery that knowingly and successfully incorporates our knowledge of the impending dissolution of social conformity that entraps the film’s key characters. if not faintly ridiculous. and almost comic to modern audiences. camera shots and atonal music conveys Frank’s sense of guilt and self-disgust in a manner which seems exaggerated. rather than empathic response. in a contemporary film. it is not only impossible to reconstruct the response of Sirk’s audience but to reproduce our own reverential response to films that were. as I suggested earlier. metalinguistic aspects of the film. in their time.
handsome husband to the photographer. Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). Frank’s homosexuality – rather than any failing on her part – is the catalyst for Cathy’s downfall. Imitiation of Life. Far from Heaven’s concern with racial segregation also bring to mind the less prominent references to Sirk’s heart-rendering 1959 racial drama. but the emphasis placed on Cathy’s New Look glamour. refusing her final plea to pursue their relationship despite the negative social consequences. an ‘innocent’ friendship that nonetheless results in an attack on Raymond’s daughter and Cathy’s precipitous fall in social status. Cathy summons the courage to pursue Raymond only when Frank has left her and it is obvious that the affluent. Significantly. As Pam Cook argues. The reference to the latter draws a less flattering comparison between Cathy’s clumsy and ultimately damaging attempts to reach beyond the racial divide. and the unconscious racism exhibited by the nominally liberal Lora Meredith (Lana Turner). For all these reasons it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Cathy is in some way carrying the film’s burden of historical homophobic and racist guilt. In the opening scenes Cathy is interviewed for a society magazine and clearly enjoys displaying her enviable home and successful. domestic competence and queenly demeanour is significant given the degree of suffering she is later forced to endure. nature-loving gardener Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson). middle-class order. but Cathy’s immediate situation at the close of the film. as a stigmatised single parent is undeniably bleak.200 Postmodern Chick Flicks role model for other women. enviable lifestyle she enjoyed at the beginning of the film is now permanently closed to her. His coldness and anger towards her precipitates her growing friendship with black gardener. Frank (Dennis Quaid) is happily ensconced with his new lover while Raymond leaves town. The film’s Sirkian references ensure that we rightly suspect that Cathy’s perfect world is on the verge of disintegration. Cathy is both the neglected and abandoned wife and the white mistress of the big house. Far from Heaven is generally taken to be closest to All That Heaven Allows (1955) as the relationship between gardener Raymond and middle-class housewife Cathy mirrors the tender romance between the emotionally starved middle-class widow Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) and the warm-hearted. However. the final shot of new blossom in a film completely dominated by a palette of Technicolor Autumn tints suggests hope for the future. On one level. the film’s desire to ‘punish’ Cathy is linked to its Sirkian forebears. At the close of the film. torn between her desire to reach out to Raymond and support the NAACP and her investment in the existing white. Yet Cathy’s plausible moral cowardice – one of the more .
The Hours is not suffused with the distancing effects of past cinematic homage. As a much loved genre film with a feminist message. On release the film was critically derided for many reasons. anger and finally. suicidal 1950s housewife and mother is more easily forgiven than the competent Cathy Whitaker. The same underlying dynamic can be found in a much cruder form in the remake of The Stepford Wives. If Pleasantville manifests a tension regarding the sexual awakening of the mother figure. But the less sympathetic treatment of its central female protagonist links to a broader recent cinematic indictment of this figure. redemption. The cultural circulation of the term ‘Stepford Wife’ as a derisory term describing women .Conclusion 201 persuasive and affecting aspects of a highly self-conscious film – seems inadequate in wholly explaining the film’s vengeful attitude towards her. but chief among these was the view that the remake betrayed the original’s chilling critique of patriarchal power. Moore’s frustrated. mother and all-round domestic goddesses that guarantee’s her destruction. particularly in recent femaleorientated films. A comparison between Julianne Moore’s role in the 1950s section of The Hours and in Far from Heaven emphasises the subtle difference in these two recent treatments of the symbolic figure of the 1950s homemaker. cloaked in contemporary historical and cultural attitudes and attuned to the interests of the female audience. Giving a powerful performance in both films. Nevertheless. unlike Far from Heaven. The oedipal drama exhibited in Pleasantville seems once again in evidence here. it is Cathy’s competence as a housewife. while the depiction of Cathy Whitaker moves from smug self-promotion to bewilderment. This is partly because. The all-powerful mother of infancy is dealt a harsh blow. The Phillip Glass score and more muted lighting (as compared to the vivid use of Technicolor and Sirkian music) gives the 1950s section of The Hours a sense of real-life intensity and crisis that is lacking in Far from Heaven. Moore manages to mutely convey mounting panic and anxiety in the former. But for female audiences there is also a doubling of the unconscious desire to break-free from the stranglehold of maternal power and influence and a more conscious desire to shed the constraining and oppressive ideology of domestic servitude and accomplishment associated with the 1950s housewife role. it would be safe to say that the 1970 Stepford Wives had as much of an impact on popular gender politics than any feminist art-movie of the period. and Far from Heaven exhibits a lingering delight in observing her gradual defeat and humiliation. The film’s camp quality links this to the familiar gay filmic identification with female victimhood.
Joanna’s own attempt to ‘pass’ among the other wives comprises the adoption of pink frilly pinafores and the mass production of pastel-coloured cupcakes. Joanna. drives home the film’s surface assumption that modern women have nothing to fear from the marginalised. The introduction of a gay male character. the media attention given to ‘career women’ who give it all up for home and family was one of the many factors that writers such as Susan Faludi drew upon as evidence of a feminist backlash in the early 1990s. mock-horror approach which pours scorn on both the ideology of feminine domesticity and the seriousness of original film. The Stepford location also mirrors the typical small-town 1950s set-up – here updated as a modern gated community. Joanna’s red lipstick. many of the clips in the opening sequence of past advertisements and newsreels are taken from the decade. thus when the heroine’s acerbic. this is signalled by her aggressively styled 1950s hairdo and wide-skirted New Look frock. Yet. the new Stepford Wives exchanges the horror/ thriller elements of the original for a camp. The film’s articulation of domesticity also takes the form of a camp and exaggerated version of feminine fiftiesness. The assumption underlying the film’s light tonal quality is that female powerlessness and male brutality and oppression is a socio-cultural phenomena so completely foreign to modern Western consciousness that it can only return as a comic theme. boxy shoulders. head to toe black and high-flying media career suggest a stereotypical view of 1980s female careerism. as in Far from Heaven. although. but finger-wagging accounts of women’s failure to cope with the dual demands of family and career have provided an ongoing source of anti-feminist propaganda from the 1980s onwards. The remodelled plotline. Although the film is nominally set in the present. anachronistic ideology of female domesticity. Indeed. In a manner that strongly resembles the jokey articulation of gender politics in Down with Love. as in many of the recent films dealing with the ideology of domesticity. intellectual friend Bobbie (Bette Midler) is transformed into a robotic wife. The use of the 1950s chronotope is also significant here. rather than for the patriarchal cultural demand that this should be women’s primary field of expertise. who admires the wives not as successful homemakers but as ‘fabulous’ camp icons. in which callous ‘career bitch’. . moves to Stepford having suffered a career-related nervous breakdown is an all too familiar contemporary story. the term carries contempt and disdain for women who excel in domestic skills. the film’s brutal and vindictive attitude towards the symbolic figure of the domestic goddess suggests otherwise.202 Postmodern Chick Flicks who devote their lives to the perfection of domestic skills indicates the lasting influence of the original.
Ally McBeal. perfectionist homemaker. controlling mother figure. As the cyborg nature of the women is already known to those familiar with the first Stepford Wives. dizzy or commitment-shy sisters coincides with the vindictive treatment meted out to high-flying ‘career women’ and smug housewives in female-orientated fictional forms. whereas new Stepford is created by the town’s leading matriarch. It might be tempting to read the depiction of the career bitch and controlling homemaker solely as patriarchal images that express male fear of female power. and even Desperate Housewives (in which the central female characters also struggle with their allotted roles and the cultural demands made on them) it is clear that female audiences prefer desperate women to successful ones. but that beloved figure of recent women’s popular fiction: the hapless singleton. Although the film positions ‘careerist’ Joanna as the polar opposite of the domestic goddess. Yet it would be too simplistic to view The Stepford Wives remake as a misogynistic reworking of the 1970s original. Far from Heaven’s Cathy Whittaker is an object of mingled sympathy and hostility. this small but culturally significant plot-twist provides the film’s one original element. competent careerist is not the pushy. numerous chick-flick novels. The film thus draws on two familiar female figures that encapsulate the cultural fear of female power: the career bitch and the pushy. Played with a suitable blend of condescension and incipient insanity by Glen Close (now famous for such cartoonish bad women roles). controlling mother. And who can blame them? In the last fifteen years to twenty years (from around the mid-1980s) the figure of the young woman shifted from culturally invisibe (or a visibility defined . both exhibit an unacceptable determination to conquer. phallic mother (Claire). whereas The Stepford Wives splits this ambivalent representation of the 1950s homemaker into the ‘daughter’ victims (the young wives) and the controlling. but they are also figures that carry the burden of perfectionism for young women. the anger inspired by the symbolic figure of the perfectionist homemaker tells us much about the constant cultural tension between women’s lived experience. a witchlike figure whose glitzy femininity conceals a steely determination to mould other women into proficient wives and mothers. Claire is the more obvious symbolic manifestation of the evil.Conclusion 203 The original Stepford wives were the result of a patriarchal plot. changing patriarchal perceptions of femininity and new models of aspiration and achievement. From Bridget Jones’s Diary to Sex and the City. As a female-orientated film. the flip side of the pushy. It is no coincidence that the phenomenal popularity of Bridget Jones and her many kooky. In symbolic terms.
Down with Love or Desperate Housewives. But the discourse of female achievement and independence has flourished hand in hand with an increasing demand for physical perfection. in the US and UK that continue to ram home the message that women are still expected to bear the brunt of domestic and childcare tasks. the enjoyment of domestic tasks is explicitly associated with a new generation of educated. knowing attitude towards femininity and domesticity that. Nigella Lawson’s knowingly titled baking guide ‘How to be a Domestic Goddess’ or the recent UK reality television programme. at least at a surface level. law and the burgeoning new media industry in the UK and US. The message is clear: the future is female and there are no longer any sexist barriers to female success. Pleasantville or the new Stepford Wives. characterises The Stepford Wives. the demand for domestic expertise has not faded along with women’s higher educational achievement or greater participation in the labour force. at the more sophisticated end of the scale. in particular. As previous critics have pointed out. and the discourse of normalising. Indeed. such as Nigella Lawson cookbooks. there are now more young women than men training for careers in the traditionally male areas of medicine. the last ten years have witnessed a boom in television programmes. As we are constantly being reminded by popular media commentary. regardless of any other goals and aspirations they might want to nurture. fashion makeovers. In a pattern mirrored by many countries in Western Europe. mothering. At the other end of the scale. Perfect Houswife (in which participants openly snigger at the hosts determination to improve their domestic skills). incorporate the playful. young women now far outstrip their male peers in educational achievement. Far from fading into the background.204 Postmodern Chick Flicks solely in terms of sexual attractiveness) to becoming the focus of society’s brightest hopes and dreams. there has been a wholesale revival of the ideology of domestic expertise ranging from an explosion . home decoration and. Women are still exhorted to excel at domestic skills. 2005: 112). affluent women who have rebelled against the perceived all-out rejection of femininity and the domestic by the previous generation of feminists and chosen to re-embrace traditional domestic crafts (Brunsdon. heterosexual femininity. lowbrow reality television such as WifeSwap or Supernanny make little attempt to present the mastery of domestic realm as a lifestyle choice for women and openly condemn and criticise women whose housekeeping or childcare methods are not up to scratch. magazines and books devoted to cookery. In addition to the exacting demands of the fashion and beauty industry and despite its camp articulation in films such as Far from Heaven.
particularly the division between the lovable losers of romantic comedy and the demonisation of the domestic goddess via the reworked discourse of fiftiesness. self-harming and body-related disorders. The darker socio-cultural manifestation of these pressures is registered in high rates of female depression. but addresses this through a range of characters. Mona Lisa Smile gives a much stronger sense of the competing ideologies that existed during the 1950s and the different ways in which individual female subjects responded to these. rather than the small-town chronotope and concerns the choices open to women prior to marriage and motherhood during the 1950s.Conclusion 205 of cookery and childcare books aimed at the chattering classes to bullying reality programmes for the less affluent. music and consumer objects (although these are obviously present) than in the overt clash between a rising discourse of female independence and individualism and the domestic ideology. On release. But Mona Lisa Smile’s specific interest in the post-war ideology of femininity highlights the much greater conflict between female ambition and wider socio-cultural structures. Fiftiesness is manifested less by clothes. . While the more self-conscious treatments of the period (such as Pleasantville or Far from Heaven) project contemporary attitudes back onto the period. Like the latter the film concerns the educational aspirations of young women and the influence of a rebellious. Mona Lisa Smile draws on the campus. Mona Lisa Smile also examines the 1950s ideology of femininity. The lighter side is the pleasure and identification produced by the new heroines of romantic comedy and the sneery attitude towards the revival of the ideology of domesticity registered in the new crop of 1950s nostalgia films. Mona Lisa Smile was frequently described as a female version of The Dead Poet’s Society (Weir. This allows for a greater exploration of different responses to these ideological pressures and avoids over-burdening the symbolic figure of the 1950s homemaker with either pity or loathing. freespirited young teacher who comes into conflict with the University establishment. ‘I wanted to make a difference’: New fiftiesness and the angry young woman Mike Newall’s recent Julia Roberts vehicle. 1989). rather than primarily through the symbolic figure of the 1950s homemaker. The intensification of body-related pressures and the revival of the domestic ideology results in the marked polarity of representations of women in recent female-orientated films. Unlike the previous examples.
The film charts her developing relationship with five girls who also represent a variety of class backgrounds and ideological and political perspectives. thus one is a lower-class. risen through the teaching ranks to become a professor of art history at a prestigious. through her own efforts. Although Joan.206 Postmodern Chick Flicks The key character is a single working-class woman who has. the two female figures that invest the most in the ideology of femininity are cut down to size while those that reject it flourish. long-established female college. sexually adventurous bohemian. another is snobbish and conservative. Thus Joan’s final decision to opt to become a fulltime wife and mother is presented as a conscious compromise adopted within certain socio-historical limits. But the film’s approach to these figures is still more fully contextualised and From Mona Lisa Smile. rather than the result of ignorance or direct coercion. Katherine’s chintz-loving. all the central female figures are capable of self-reflection and change. pathetic spinster and the snobbish and bitchy Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst) ends up divorcing her philandering husband. As in the previously discussed 1950s-inspired women’s films. the ambitious A-grade student who becomes closest to Katherine is a more fully drawn character than the others. another boyish and gauche. another a sensitive and intelligent A-grade student. hyper-domesticated flatmate Nancy Abbey (Marcia Gay Harden) is depicted as a lonely. 2003. .
Conclusion 207 sympathetic than their treatment in films that focus exclusively on the hated and feared domestic goddess. However. in Far from Heaven. in which she struggles through material they are already familiar with they glare down at her from above. in this climatic scene. patronising culture of 1950s femininity. This symbolic gesture mirrors the importance of modernism in recent postmodernist treatments of conservative fiftiesness. postmodernist treatments of fiftiesness. as opposed to the intensified projection of hatred onto one symbolic ‘mother’ figure. in these latter. Mona Lisa Smile is also the only recent treatment of the era that directly integrates mother/daughter conflict into the plotline. the images are projected onto her body. signifying racial diversity and female empowerment. Katherine takes the students to view a Jackson Pollock and explodes with rage at the mass production of Van Gogh paint-by-number sets. in terms of its feminist reworking of fiftiesness. Significantly. Thus the student who is initially most hostile to Katherine is under the influence of her mother. This results in a more localised articulation of mother/daughter conflict. Facing a student backlash led by the spiteful Betty she asks her students to critically reflect on a number of advertisements aimed at women for objects such as corsets and domestic appliances. is associated with fauvist colour blocks. While Jameson’s early work on postmodernism argued that high modernism had been rendered impotent by its insertion into a postmodernist consumer economy. the student’s farewell gift to Katherine is a set of individualised versions of the Van Gogh Sunflowers kit. The positioning of Katherine in the lecture hall is indicative of her relationship to them throughout the film. the film sets modernist experimentalism against the crass. apparent in the more self-conscious treatments of 1950s domesticity. In this scene she sits among them next to the slide projector. a rich. it resurfaces as an important counter-discourse to the culture of white. in the opening scene. For example. The fissure between domestic ideology and lived experience is particularly apparent in the scene in which Katherine discusses images from recent advertisements with her class. Cathy and . male hegemony. In a gesture that emphasises the film’s overall approach to modernist individualism. rather than as an underlying symbolic dynamic of historical and cultural change. But in the subsequent lesson she flaws their expectations and wins their respect by introducing a number of modernist paintings. In Pleasantville ‘colour’. emphasising the tension between Katherine herself and her aspirations as a teacher – the desire that her students should be educated and pursue independent career – and the surrounding pressures of domestic ideology. powerful college trustee who regards the college as little more than a finishing school for society wives.
In a more general sense. The life of the home is presented as something to be escaped from. . illness and self-sacrifice. while the collectivist. that they offer a direct point of comparison with the overtly misogynistic and nostalgic treatments of the period in the ‘first wave’ of popular postmodernist films. and romance can only exist in heavily drawn inverted commas (hence the compatibility of new women’s films and postmodernist self-consciousness). in the reworked costume drama. romantic comedy. twinned with social and economic power. Thus even the romantic comedy and historical romance understand the discourse of heterosexual romance very much in terms of its incompatibility with a rising counter-narrative of female independence and self-determination. humour and historical self-consciousness. children are rare. that they highlight the way in which the ‘return’ of the woman’s film is entwined with a shift away from the female investment in the domestic and maternal towards a consistent focus on the tension between female educational and career aspirations and traditional notions of femininity. secondly. socialist and radical tendencies have given way to this new discourse of female self-empowerment. Firstly. Through its use of irony. particularly concerning discourses of femininity and domesticity. I have concluded the book by examining this cluster of films for two reasons. the overwhelming emphasis in recent ‘chick flicks’ i. neo-noir and the revived 1950s woman’s film is a thematic concern with a feminist-inspired desire for self-determination and discovery.208 Postmodern Chick Flicks Raymond’s relationship is forged over a Miro exhibition and in The Hours.e. psychological and historical boundaries that impede their progress. Laura Brown escapes from domestic drudgery through reading Mrs Dalloway. the treatment of the post-war period in these films reflects the wider recent postmodernist filmic interest in questions of historical modes of subjectivity and oppression. Although the short-lived early 1990s melodrama counters 1980s male ambition and greed with the traditional figure of woman-as-redeemer. Put bluntly. what the new women’s genres reflect and remythologise for female audiences is a notion of contemporary female subjectivity that has largely shed the classical women’s film’s obsession with trauma. This particular brand of individualist feminism has become the dominant socio-cultural legacy of the equal rights tradition of feminism. the new women’s film also responds to the discourse of female self-empowerment by emphasising the continuing chasm between women’s increased expectations and aspirations and the material. The new women’s film thus registers the triumph of a liberal rather than radical feminist vision of female empowerment.
The International Motion Picture Almanac 2000s top grossing films 1990–1999. 1998: 600). ‘These films can be seen as the contemporary cinematic expression of mass-produced fantasies for women. 1997 My Best Friend’s Wedding (9) and 1999 Runaway Bride (9) (Stephens. 1998). Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson have all either updated or reworked well-known fairytales. Karen Hollinger’s recent study of the female friendship film gives a full account of the development of this genre. 1989: 41). playfully exploring her cultural mythologisation without revealing whether she is truth or illusion (Carter. Deidre E. 2. Critics such as Miriam Hansen have recently disputed this view. Although Altman’s overall argument stresses the provisional nature of genre boundaries. Angela Carter. show romantic comedy entries for 1990 Pretty Woman (3). Peter Kramer’s analysis of Titanic suggests that it is the biggest cross-over (appealing to male audiences) woman’s film of the decade. 3. 2002). managing to marry a concern with romance and focus on a leading female figure with the traditionally male-orientated action sequences (Kramer. 6. reworking the classical Hollywood picture refracted through the “new” women’s picture of the 1970s and the romance novel’ (White. 1982). cinema dealing with questions of ethnic identity and postmodernist cinema) highlights the way in which the expansion of the independent sector since the 1980s has also been accompanied by the increasing diversity of its generic output (Pribram. Carter’s novel Nights at the Circus centres on a ‘winged’ nineteenth-century trapeze artist. This period has been documented by feminist filmmaker Ruby Rich in Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement (Rich. 3. 2. 1998). New Hollywood and Women’s Films 1. For example. Charlotte Brunsdon’s Screen discussion of the ‘independent woman’ cycle of the late 1970s is a good example of this approach (Brunsdon. his emphasis on the feminist canon formation seems to conflict with this approach (Altman. 209 . Pribram’s recent account of American independent cinema (which includes chapters on women’s cinema. 2000). 1999: 332). 4.Notes 1 Postmodernism. 5. 1998). Mini White states. 1985). 4. 2 The Early 1990s ‘Postmodernist’ Melodrama: Female Virtue in the Consumer Age 1. based on worldwide sales figures. 1993 Sleepless in Seattle (5). looking closely at recent examples (Hollinger. arguing that classical Hollywood derived many codes and conventions from European modernist cinematic practices (Hansen.
8. 1991: 17). More overtly historical in that period trappings are usually accentuated in the costume drama but form a backdrop in the female friendship movie. The primary difference. Jacinda Read also notes the feminist twist given to the usually conservative notion of ‘fiftiesness’ and the small town in Sleeping with the Enemy (Read. 5 Neo-Noir and Noir-Lite: Masculinity and Postmodernist Aesthetics in New Retro-Noir 1. 3. is the way in which this is both tied to feminist attitudes to male competitiveness and articulated through ‘postmodernist’ genre blending. (Krutnik. The Evening Standard quoted the response of the secretary of the Jane Austen society to the BBC serial thus. Even those critics bold enough to endorse its generic status disagree about whether it can be viewed as an example of ‘classical’ output and to what degree it was influenced by the avant-gardist. in this case. 2. a ‘style’ or ‘mood’ defined largely by lighting. cycle (one manifestation of crime fiction) or. expressionist features of European art-cinema. many cautiously plump for subgenre. Frank Krutnik (who devotes the first two chapters of his study of film noir and masculinity to this subject) states: Despite the increasingly familiar use of the term among film critics and historians film noir remains a hotly debated area of contention. and hordes of misty-eyed women turned up through the winter after the house was closed for the season’ (Kennedy. 2000: 64). ‘the idea of Mr Darcy diving into his bath wearing not a stitch is awful’ (Cusk. For example.210 Notes 7. Shying away from the term. 1996: 1). Any recent noir critic worth his or her salt feels compelled to delve some way into the question of whether noir really constitutes a genre at all before going about their business. 1996: 4). 4 Costume Drama. The conception of women as a civilising influence is a well-established feature of melodrama. Maev Kennedy’s discussion of the heritage industry stated that ‘it was the scene of actor Colin Firth’s Byronic plunge into the lake. Historiography and Women’s History 1. Especially problematic is its very status as a unified group of films – as Spencer Selby suggests film noir is ‘perhaps the most slippery of all film categories’. In the critical accounts which have accumulated since the late 1960s there are so many varying critical conceptions of film noir that there is at times a danger that it will become redundant as a descriptive or analytic category. 1991: 17) . Nyman’s association with avant-gardist British filmmaker Peter Greenaway also foregrounds The Piano’s status as highbrow costume drama. even more vaguely. In one of the longer 1990s critiques of classical noir. atmosphere and a bleak and despairing tone rather than a recognisable fixed body of plot or aesthetic conventions (Krutnik.
the closer the object is approached. 1993). 8. (Cowie. 7. 4. For example. 6. And that’s its biggest problem. male-identified professionals. Miss Congeniality (Petrie. Con Tsalamandris describes Reservoir Dogs as ‘too sly for its own good . . (Vernet. 1991). . Reservoir Dogs is a film that knows exactly what it is doing. It’s too self-aware. yet the mental activity of traversing cyberspace is described in a manner which conveys the energy and excitement of action-orientated fiction. female victim turned hero in films such as The Color Purple (Spielberg. Again. reinforcing its association with cinema. except perhaps in France where the term originated – the claims for the category lie in a post hoc analysis of similarities identified in certain films . In cyberpunk fiction the male hero is physically disembodied in cyberspace. . 3. Only too well. snuff playback replicates snuff movies. Elizabeth Cowie describes it as ‘the genre that never was’ – since the term was not used by the studios themselves. twists and reversals are so well oiled that it’s hard not to notice it going through the motions’ (1993: 96). a female-led comedy (starring Sandra Bullock) structured entirely around the perceived mismatch between femininity and authoritative. The Client (Schumacher. 1985). 9. Marc Vernet suggests: What is completely strange in the discourse of film noir is that the more elements of definition which are advanced. Frank Krutnik’s study cites five major forms (Krutnik. 5. . In this sense. 1985) and What’s Love Got to Do with It? (Gibson. Rather than being entirely based on fantasy. the fuzzier the results become. . such as Jagged Edge (Marquand. This is in marked contrast to the more general field of contemporary sci-fi literature in which female writers – such as Joanna Russ and Ursula Le Guin – have used the form to address issues of gender and science and to create alternative worlds in which gender relations are differently ordered. Well-known examples include television’s Prime Suspect series and films featuring female law enforcers or lawyers. the more diluted it becomes. 1993: 121) 2. 2000). the more precision desired. Unlike terms such as ‘the western’ or gangster film which are relatively uncontroversial (and were industry categories) film noir has a more tenuous critical status. the figure of Mace connects both with the representation of the female figure as civiliser/redeemer in the postmodernist melodrama and the more specifically racialised figure of the black. The film’s plot manoeuvres. more recently. 1993: 5) Many critics cite the fact that the term was coined by French critic Nino Frank in 1946 rather than American studios as a reason for its ‘uniquely’ contentious status.Notes 211 Similarly. or by audiences at the time. the more objections and counter-objections are raised. its dramatic material extrapolates from the advances occurring in contemporary science. 1994) or.
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1986). ‘Masculine’ postmodernist cinema Manhunter (Mann. When Harry Met Sally (Reiner. 1995). 2003) and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (Kidron. 1995). 1989). 1993). 1981). 1994). My Best Friend’s Wedding (Hogan. Basic Instinct (Verhoeven. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg. Down with Love (Reed. Pretty Woman (Marshall. The Usual Suspects (Singer. Black Widow (Rafelson. 1992). 1987). 1990). Blue Steel (Bigelow. 1992). Sense and Sensibility (1995). 1990). 1988). 1995). Mr Macabe and Mrs Miller (Altman. The Piano (Campion. 1992). 1992). Blockbuster allusionism Star Wars (Lucas. Pulp Fiction (Tarantino. 1985). 1990). 1995) and Fight Club (Fincher. Neo-Noir and Noir-Lite Body Heat (Kasdan. New York (Scorsese.Titanic (1998). Heat (Mann. Runaway Bride (Marshall. 2002). Bridget Jones’s Diary (Maguire. 1994). Mansfield Park (1998) and The Hours (Daldry. 1999). The Last Picture Show (Bogdanovich. 1990). 2004). Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino.Filmography New Hollywood’s ‘early’ postmodernist/allusionist cinema Bonnie and Clyde (Penn. Body of Evidence. 1971) and New York. Die Hard with a Vengeance (Tiernan. Blue Velvet (Lynch. Natural Born Killers (Stone. 1986). 1967). Sleepless in Seattle (Ephron. The postmodernist early 1990s melodrama Ghost (Zucker. Sleeping with the Enemy (Reubens. Seven (Fincher. 1971). 1997). 1993). Metafictional costume drama Orlando (Potter. Wild at Heart (Lynch. 1999). 1987). Die Hard (McTiernan. 1990). 1982) and Back to the Future (Zemeckis. 1993). What Women Want (Meyers. 222 . 2000). 1977). New romantic comedy Moonstruck (Jewison. 2001). Die Hard 2 (Harlin. 1977). Final Analysis (Joanou. 1991) and Indecent Proposal (Lynn.
2004) and Mona Lisa Smile (Newell. The Stepford Wives (Oz. Serial Mom (Waters.Filmography 223 (Edel. 2003). The Last Seduction (Dahl. 1992). Strange Days. Far from Heaven (Haynes. 2002). 1994). (Bigelow 1995) and Out of Sight (Soderbergh. 1998). 1994). ‘Fiftiesness’ in recent cinema Pleasantville (Ross 1998). .
100. 130. 102–5. 62. 93. 169. Roger 62 Black Widow 3. Katherine 13. 148. Sandro 143 Bowlby. 119–22. 67 Bell. 23 Botticelli. 203 Bringing Up Baby 96–7 Broadcast News 98 . Rick 23. 47. 178 blockbuster films 24–5. 198 Bad Girls 52 Bakhtin. 20. 10. 169 Altman. Ien 59 An Angel at My Table 132 ‘anhedonia’ (Denzin) 108 Annie Hall 98. 51. 93–4. Rick 73 Azim. Jean 4. 107–8 Another 48 HRS 64 anti-feminist backlash 71. Jane 8. 58. 38–46. 140. 41. Patrick 83–4 Bergman. 126. 127. 118. 99. Humphrey 109–10 Bogdanovich. Robert 4 American Psycho 5 anaclitic drive 111 Anders. Luthaire 146 Body Heat 160–8 Body of Evidence 163. 85. 89. Firdous 138–9 Back to the Future 13. 52. 168 Braveheart 45–6 Bridget Jones films 8. 120. 52. 125. 68. 121. 105. 178. 163–7 Basinger. Woody 11. 134 Austen.Index academic study and criticism of film 60. 118 Beaches 63. 67. 152 Birbaun. Alison 51 Anderson. 44–5 Atwood. 85. 203 Altman. Peter 4 Bonnie and Clyde 32 Borden. 93. Nellie 153 Boys Don’t Cry 65 Boys on the Side 63. 166. 180 All That Heaven Allows 200 Allen. 58. 170–1. 183. 190 Bergin. W. 85. Angela 182 224 Baudrillard. 202 Apocalypse Now! 32. D. M. 155. 192–5. 180 Bogart. 28–33. 68–9. 184–5 bio-pics 51. 157. John 150 Boxhall. 13. Marlon 193 ‘bratpack’ film directors 38. John 28. 162–3. 17–18. 185 Blue Velvet 5–6. 109. Kevin 86 Ang. 66 Brando. Lizzie 48 Bordwell. 94. Kim 63 Bassett. 167 ‘body horror’ science fiction 162–3. 104–5. 187–8. 138. 181. 47. 119. 128–9. Margaret 36. 176–8. 108–9 allusionism. 170–1. 22. 160 Ally McBeal 3. 170 Blade Runner 169. 42. Steve 151 Bigelow. 191–4. 115–18 After Hours 90 age of cinema audiences 62 Alien films 3. 55–7. 28–34. 50. 26–7. Ingrid 110 Biddulph. 31–3 Benjamin. 98. 131–3 authenticity 130–1. cinematic 4–14. 140. 198 Bluteau. 157 An Affair to Remember 107. Vanessa 152 Belton. historical 189–90 Autumn in New York 67 Aviles. 194 base–superstructure models 18 Basic Instinct 13. 94. 190–1 Blue Steel 3.
152. Tim 6. 44 cine-literacy 27–30. 170 The Conformist 163 Connick. 156. Bette 63 Day. 97. 34 Coma 43. 152 Daly. 55. Norman 6. 113 De Palma. 102. 19 Cage. Andrew 120 Davis. Michael 132. Angela 36–8. 65. 89 Bruzi. 126 Casablanca 11. 140. 155 Cowie. 32. 51. Tamra 52 Davis. 32–3 Cook. 178 Campion. 133. 140. 47–8. Jackie 1 Byatt. 19. George 172. Sandra 66 Butler. Stephen 12. Barbara 36. 129–37. 28. 62–8. 119. 161–3. 32. Cecil B. 24. 180–1. Alison 42–4. 45 Deitch. Michael 29. 138–9 Brown-Eyed Girl 86 Brownmiller. 168 Carter. 28–33. Harry junior 114 Cook. Jim 16. 21. David 162. Cameron 66 . 108–11. 160. 107. 44 Coppola. 177 Close. 153. 129. 40 Denzin. Julie 51 Daughters of the Dust 51 Davies. 203 chick lit 3. Francis 29. 166. Pam 54. 12. 40. 157. 51. 144–5. Jane 70. 119. 203 Desperately Seeking Susan 46.Index 225 Brontë sisters 133–4. Quentin 142 Cronenberg. Jane 12. David 24. Donna 51 de Lauretis. 102 costume drama 12. 19–20. 52. 41. 93. Carol 49 Cold Mountain 153 Collins. Sophia 65 Corrigan. Elizabeth 171–2 Creed. 90 Diaz. 168 Clayton. 28. 130. Nancy 59 counter-cinema 31. 185. 122–3 The Day After Tomorrow 124 Days of Thunder 64 The Dead Poet’s Society 205 The Deer Hunter 32. Italo 19 Cameron. 105 chicks television 3. 125. 108.S. 80. 128. 52. Mike 93 Cage. 32. Manohla 141 Dash. Stella 136 Buck Rogers films 33 Buena Vista 65 Bullock. 12 Chinatown 163 Cimino. 21. 29. Charlotte 2. 80 Carey. Teresa 50–1 de Mille. 43. James 131. John 4. 109–12 censorship 5. 38. 61. 43. 51. 127. Judith 37. 132–4 Caputi. Susan 90–1 Brunsdon. 208 Cott. A. 134 Bygraves. 198–200 Coppola. Noel 4. 93. 59 Byars. 148–9. 169. 66. 48. Mary 37 Dargis. 64. 102–3. 14. Nicolas 101 Calvino. John 16. Brian 29 Desert Hearts 51 The Desire to Desire 56 Desperate Housewives 3. Glen 203 Clover. 189–92. 156. 43. 140. Doris 8–10. 180 Cunningham. 57–60. 186–7 crime fiction 170–1 Crisp. 96 Demme. 19. 132. 78. 52–3. 129. Jack 70 Clooney. 149. 46–53. 154 cyberpunk 179–87 Daldry. 29 Carrington 130–1 Carroll. Jonathan 29. Jim 195 Carpenter. 128 Butler. 57. 175 Channel Four television 25 Chaplin 128 Chariots of Fire 129 Cher 101 chick flicks 3–4.
185 Duchamp. 162. 204–8 feminisation of cinematic practice 63. 67–8. E. 8. Michel 126 Four Weddings and a Funeral 93. 100 Frankfurt school 35. 120. 143. 109 The French Lieutenant’s Woman 134 French New Wave cinema 30 Freud. 53. Nora 7. 121. 67. 94. Vera 193 directors. Thomas 70–1. 156. 19–20. 190 Fraser. John 134 Fraiman. 48–50. and postmodern cinema 35–47. 44 Dika. Colin 120. 118 . female 208 Ephron. 13. Linda 165 The First Wives Club 63 Firth. 141. 11–12. Kirsten 206 Dworkin. 103. Dwight D. 154 Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café 51. 129 Foster. 202. see also anti-feminist backlash feminist film criticism 1–3. 82. radical 93. 177 framing devices in film 5. 122–4. Nancy 59–60 French. 42. 204 dream sequences 111. 16. 118. George 133–4 Elsaesser. 178. 173–4 Franke. 11–12 Doane. Linda 137 Easy Rider 32 Eco. 120 Fowles. 16 Dunst. Tracey 36 empowerment. 184–5 Far from Heaven 8. 172 feminism: liberal 208. 207 Fight Club 6. 14. 205. Hal 18–19 Foucault. 114.226 Index Die Hard films 6. 150. 132. 45. 58–61. 123. 130 Florence. 156–7.M. Lizzie 63. Harrison 178 Forster. 141. 202 family melodrama 55–6 fantasy 104–5. 8. 123 essentialism and anti-essentialism 60–1. 129 Frieda 51. 106–7. 66. 187 Fielding. Sigmund (and Freudian theory) 111. 51. 182. 93. M. 75–6 Emin. Henry and Phoebe 107 Ephron. 115–16 The Doctor 78 Double Indemnity 160. 75. Umberto 19. 66. 184–5. 122 ‘fiftiesness’ 85–6. Betty 10 Friedberg. 75. 39. 88. 75. Michael 71 Down with Love 8–10. 172. 126 l’écriture feminine 140 Eisenhower. 120. 179 feminist literary criticism 133 feminist politics 90 femme fatale figure 161–9. 47 Fiorentino. 56. Penny 143 The Fly 162 For the Boys 64 Ford. 93. 192 Eliot. Mary Ann 1. 54–5. 202. 160. 191–8. 144 Existenze 180 Faludi. David 6. 132. Helen 3. see also women filmmakers disaster movies 124 distancing devices in film 5. 198–208 Fatal Attraction 165–6 Father Knows Best 192 female friendship films 62–3. 105. 67. 135. Susan 7. 35. 81–3. 148 Friedan. 65. 129 femininity and feminine values 68. 101. female 65. 85. 179. Susan 71. 87–8. Andrea 90–1 Dyson. 99. Marilyn 71. 75. 170 Douglas. 38. 45–6 film noir 156–88 Final Analysis 163 Fincher. Anne 105–7. second-wave 10.
133. 40. 196. Todd 198 Haysbert. 148–54. 140. 140. Phillip 150. 68–72. 132–3. 118 Happy Days 193 Haraway. Andrew 129–31 Hillier. 190. 84. Antonio 50 grand narratives 189 Grant. Jane 3 Green Card 93 Greenaway. 59. 47. Whoopi 73 The Golddiggers 132 Goldsmith. 50. 43 Go Fish 46 The Godfather 32. 117 Holmlund. Mel 45–6 Gibson. 61–4. Linda 183 Hanks. 147–8 Hitchcock. M. 83 Hogan. 134. Stephen 39 Henderson. Jim 62–4 His Girl Friday 96–7 ‘historiographic metafictions’ 127. 200 Hudson’s Hawk 64 Hunter. 134 Hurd. 89–90 Gibson. 30. 144 gender politics 123. Alfred 10. Michael 8 Gormley. 57 Haynes. Andreas 16. 129. 130–1 Hudson. Dennis 200 Heartbreakers 13 Heartburn 106 Heat 46 Heath. 193. 48 gangster films 158 Garbo. 181. Peter 132. Brian 97–8. Sue 138 Gilman Perkins. 51. Donna 59 Harden. 57. 191 genre distinctions and genre-blending 26–8. 58. ‘romantic’ 64. 186 Gillet. 34–5 hyperreality 125 identity politics 21. 44–5 Goldberg. 19–20. 61. 144 Greer. 68–81. Tom 107. 175 Gordon. 101 ‘heritage’ films 129–30. 63. 128. 142.Index 227 Gamman. 101 Ghost 12. 208 How to Make an American Quilt 51. 201 Glatter. 89–90 independent film-makers 46–7 . Holly 132. Christine 1. Sam 73 Goodfellas 42. Christine 2 Gere. 93 Higson. Lorraine 39–40. 195 The Great Gatsby 70 Green. William 161 Hutcheon. Marleen 51 gothicism 81–3. 178. Marcia Gay 206 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire 24 Harvey. 80. Hugh 120 Grease 193. postclassical 22–34. Molly 1. 42–3. Greta 142 Gaslight 81 gender identity 61. 114. 76–81. Lesli Linka 63 Gledhill. 140–1 gender roles 13–14. 192. 31–2 Haskell. 157–8. 62 ‘gynesis’ 162 Hamilton. Rock 108. 114. 87. 183. 129. David 23. William 179. 145. 138. 32–3. 50. Germaine 10 Grove. 63. Barry Keith 90 Grant. 170. 198 I Love Lucy 192 Imitation of Life 200 Indecent Proposal 12. 122–3. see also literature and literary genres Geraghty. Gale Anne 65 The Hurricane 128 Hurt. Charlotte 134 Girlfriends 57 Glass. 129 Howard’s End 46. Richard 63. 109. 195 Gramsci. Paul 93 Hollywood films 17–22. Olivia 63 Goldwyn. 140. 28. 61. Paul 5 Gorris. 102. 147 ‘high-conception’ films 24–5. Linda 127 Huyssen. 31. Chris 177 homosexuality 199–200 The Hours 12. 157.
165–6 It Happened One Night 96–7 I’ve Heard the Mermaid Singing 51 Jackie Brown 13. 50. 6. 43. 40–1. 122 Maguire. 13. 190–2. 207 Jardine. Barbara 19. Samuel L. 29. 34. 47. 1 and Kill Bill Vol. 74. 98–100. 191–4 Lyne. 17–22. Don 195 Korean War 192 Kracauer. 160–3. 172 laddishness and laddism 35. 157 Kuhn. 153 Madonna 45. 161. 168 Kellner. 38 Lucia. 93. 120–1 The Lady Eve 96–7 Landsberg. S. 155–6. 32. Colin 39 McCabe and Mrs Miller 31 McCarey. Alison 184 Lapsley. George 19. 135 LA Confidential 163. Alice 162 Jarman. Martha 65 A League of their Own 46–7.228 Index Indiana Jones films 6 infant determinism 151 Intolerable Cruelty 13 Irigary. E. 122 Kill Bill Vol. 117. Peter 24 Jackson. 124. Adrien 68 Lyotard. Terry 63 Macy. 168–9 King Kong 24 Kirby. 190 Kramer. 145. Frank 95. 176 Jagged Edge 3 James. Jane 196 Kaplan. Oliver 151 Jameson. 108–13. Ariel 35 Lewis. 44 Kidman. 122. 29. Annette 56 Lacanian theory 11. 46. Jean-François 4. 189 MacCabe. 36. 103. Jill 151 Knotts. Leo 107 McEwan. 197 Madden. 85. Ian 189 McGregor. Nelly 38 Kasdan. Claire 39 Jones. Jennifer 172 Lost in Translation 65 Lubitsch. 167 Maguire. Ann 56 Kaplan. 25. 144 Jaws 24 Jewison. Ernst 118 Lucas. David 6–8. 52. Adrian 165–6 Lynn. Lawrence 160 Keaton. Antonia 51 literature and literary genres 36–9 Little Women 63 Loaded 120 Lopez. Julia 141 Kruger. Ang 131 Leonard. 49. 51 Lee. Nigella 204 Lazen. 34. 41. 129 Juhasz. William H. 16. Amy 68 The Joy Luck Club 63. Cynthia 170 Lynch. 168. Ewan 9. 119. 129. 156. 163. 2 13. 135 Iris 51. Elton 198 Johnston. Elmore 172 Letter from an Unknown Woman 95 Levy. Fredric 4. 117 The Last Picture Show 31 The Last Seduction 163–6 The Lawnmower Man 179 Lawson. Douglas 28–33. Derek 132. Norman 101 John. Diane 109 Keaton. Sharon 51. 68 Kristeva. Alexandra 6–7 Julia 57 Kaczmarek. Peter 63–4. Luce 86. Michael 174 Keitel. Tobey 196 Malcolm X 128 . Harvey 132. 123 McMillan. 174–7 Jackson. 93. Nicole 133 Kidron. 126. John 131. 102. Beeban 51. 17. 127. R. Juliet 182 Line. 41. 148 irony 105. 38 Krutnik.
113 Mann. 171. 148–54. tech-noir North. Bette 202 Miramax 46–7 Modleski. 104 Moore. Deepa 48 Mellencamp. 128 melodrama 90–1. 93. 124 . Steve 23. Gary 80. 187–8. 188. neo-noir.Index 229 ‘male gaze’ 48. 72. 77. 82–3 Mona Lisa Smile 13. Julianne 144–6. Michael 6. 195 Payne Studies 184 Penn. 199 Musser. 38 Morrison. Sam 132 neo-noir 157–80. 208 Mulvey. 153–4. 205 Nicholson. Diane 9. 123. Rosie 105. 186 Maltby. 193 Newell. 135 Ocean’s Eleven and Ocean’s Twelve 177 O’Donnell. 175–9. Charles 96 My Best Friend’s Wedding 93. 135. 186. Meaghan 36. 104. Laura 39. 99 Marshall. 51. 198. 38. Mike 120. 193. 119 Neuromancer 179. 46. Ernst 17. 194–5 nostalgia for nostalgia 42 Notting Hill 93 Novak. 101. 76 Moore. 94 Neill. Claire 130–1 Moonstruck 98. 172–7. 129 Nyman. 123 Now and Then 63. Freya 3 nostalgia films 43. 160–3. see also costume drama Petro. 129–43. 162. Arthur 4 Perfect Housewife 204 period settings 12. 129. 127–9. 122. 101. 124. Toni 36 Morrison. 63 Marshment. 130 Murphet. Margaret 39–40. Van 86 motherhood 151 Mrs Dalloway 148. 98–9 Negra. 190 Pidduck. Gabriel Garcia 19 marriage 96. 186 New Right ideology 32–3. Penny 51. Richard 24 Mandel. 141. Mira 51 narcissism 111–12 Natural Born Killers 5. 208 ‘nervous romances’ 98–101. 156. 187–8 Outbreak 66 Owens. 188 mass culture 16–18. 99–107. 41–6. Jocelyn 63 Morris. 153 Marquez. Michael 66. 89 The Piano 12. 159. 153. 208. use of 66. see also postmodernist melodrama ‘memory crisis’ 189–90 Merchant Ivory Films 132 metagenericity 5 Midler. 119 Marshall. 140–9. Suzanne 116 Moorhouse. Patricia 41–4. Craig 36 Paramount decrees 22–3 Paramount Films 29. 48 masculinity. 132–5. 119 Nair. 201 Moore. 59–60. 107. 65–6. 68. Linda 49. 10. 46 Mansfield Park 131. 150. masculine identity and masculine values 6–8. Patrice 52 Pfeil. 38. 100. 116 Old Wives for New 96 Orlando 12. 22. 205–7 Monk. 61. 175 Neale. 150. Julian 175–7 music. 168. 190 Out of Sight 13. 65 paranoia films 82–8. Tania 37. 190–1. 122. 51. Kim 9–10. Demi 73. Fred 44. 21 Manhattan (city) 124 Manhattan (film) 98. 143. 166–7 Pillow Talk 8. 16. 35 master narratives 161–2 The Matrix 180–1 Maurice 130–1 Medium Cool 32 Mehta. 89. 133 Nixon 128 noir see film noir. 113–14. 51. 50. Julianne 199. 84. 105–14. 110.
125. 178. Alexander 143 popular culture 19. Ridley 52. 50. 129–31 Rosie the Riveter 198 Ross. and postmodern culture 15–20. Robert 70 Reed. Iowa 85–6 September 11th 2001 attacks 124–5 Serial Mom 167–8 Sex and the City 3. Isabella 6 Roth. 41–6. 79 Runaway Bride 93. 113. 155–65. 50 postmodernist-feminism 52 postmodernist melodrama 55. 190. 50. 103. 203. 123 Reservoir Dogs 5–7. 70. Salman 19. 62–4. 144–6. 166–9 Riley. 48 Pride and Prejudice 130–3 Prince of Tides 64 prostitution 75–6. 161. 160–1. 44 Sackville-West. 135–6. 129. 47. 93–121. 55. 155. 6. 185. 104. 82. 204–7 Pollock. Barry 61 Rebecca 81. Joseph 198 Schatz. 172. 93. Joseph 68. 79. 29. 189 Pullman.230 Index La Pirate’s Fiancee 38 Play it Again Sam 98. 51. 156 reality television 204 Reardon. 131. 175. 41–5. 85. 175. 68. 174–5 Scott. 42. 188 Potter. 171 Seidalman. 169–70. Michael 28–33. 99. 137. 126. 156–7. 168. 184. 150. 107. 99. 88–90. 184. John 18 The Secret beyond the Door 81. 93. 93. 83 Rebel without Cause 193 The Reckless Moment 171 Redford. 94. Jackson 207 Pope. 166. 38. Denise 37. Patricia 51. 140–8. Susan 57 self-empowerment. and genre 26–7. Thomas 24 Scorsese. Peyton 122 Regarding Henry 78 Reiner. 59 Roberts. 76. 99–104 Pribram. Meg 66. 80–1. 45–50. 82. 41. 99. Tim 168 Rowe. 155–6. 111 playback technology 181–7 Pleasantville 13. 32–7. 193–201. 169 screwball comedy 96–100. Kathleen 107–8 Rozema. 83–4. 77. 159. 70. 67–9. 208 A Room with a View 46. 177 The Postman Always Rings Twice 160 postmodernist cinema 4–29. 168. Rob 93. Julia 66. 89. Herbert 63 Rosselini. 91. 154 Pretty Woman 12. 92. 113. 205. 132–3. 101 psychoanalysis and psycho-analytic concepts 40. Martin 4. 153. 205 Robocop 179 Romancing the Stone 57 romantic comedy 10–14. 46–7. female 208 Semi-Tough 97 Sense and Sensibility 131 Senta Falls. 105. 31 Reagan. 153 Ruban. E. 125 . 149. 100–1. 81. 93. 175 rétro mode 127. 106. 104. Sally 12. 67. Vita 140 Santely. 175 Quaid. 104 Rushdie. 43. 114–20 Ryan. 208. 16. 189 Ryan. Dennis 200 Queen Christina 142 Radway. Ronald (and Reaganite policies) 32. 68–70. Bill 114 Pulp Fiction 6–7. Janice 59 Raiders of the Lost Ark 28. 120. 22 pornography 35. 118–19. 104. 109. 51. 85. 172 Seabrook. 48. and feminism 35–47. 127–8. 61–4. 81. 71. Deidre 39–40. 186 Portrait of a Lady 51 Possession 134 post-feminism 9–14.
193 Sommerville. Charlotte 142 Van Gogh. Steven 13. 114–21. Lana 200 Turner Classic Movies 25 Twin Peaks 47. Bruce 179 Stiff Upper Lips 130 Stone. 116. 58. 186 television 3. John 168. 93. 79–80. 31 stars. 45–6 Shaviro. Vincent 207 Vertigo 10. Rose 189 Troche. 128 Taxi Driver 44–5 tech-noir 169. 172. Steven 185 Sherman. 104–6. 40–7. 198. 167–8 Turner. 172. Claudia 179–80. 53. 176–88 street culture 175–7 Stuart. Tilda 142 Sylvia 51. 118 Spielberg. Jimmy 142 Spartacus 31 spectatorship. 13–14. Amy 63 Tarantino. 68–72. 41. Elaine 140 The Silence of the Lambs 170 Silence of the Palace 51 Silkwood 106 ‘sixtiesness’ 123 Sky movies 76 Sleeping with the Enemy 12. female 48–9. female 66 Starting Over 113 Steel Magnolias 63. Christine 65 Valendrey. 153 Sharrett. 178–83. 90. Steven 19. 193 Tremain. 24. 169. Cindy 19. 36–8 Shop around the Corner 118 Showalter. 51 Trainspotting 42 Travolta. Rose 46 True Romance 42 The Truman Show 195 Turner. 183 Taubin. 167 Sleepless in Seattle 7. 119. 24–5. 204 Terminator films 3. Oliver 71 Stone. Patrick 73 Sweet November 67 Sweetie 132 Swift. 148 Tan. Moufida 48. 193. 69. 38 Springer. 76. 28–9. 192–3 The Two Mrs Carrolls 81 Universal Studios 65 An Unmarried Woman 57 The Usual Suspects 42. Barbara 63 Star Wars 6. Sharon 165 Strange Days 13. 95. 174. 183 Thelma and Louise 46. 182 . 23 Thriller 132 Thurman. 174. 16. Yvonne 9. 163 Vachon. 94. Kurt 126 voyeurism 136–7. 186 Stanwyck. 61. 166–7. Andrea 59 studio system 23. 192–3. 194 Soderbergh. 131 Tladi.Index 231 Sex. 183. 122–4 Shakespeare in Love 131. Kathleen 161. 177 Something Wild 13. Christopher 6. Lies and Videotape 174 sex-comedies 109–14. Amy 41–2. 52 Thief of Hearts 57 The Thomas Crown Affair 13 Thompson. 67 The Stepford Wives 8. Uma 168–9 Titanic 68. Quentin 6–8. 201–4 Stepmom 67 Sterling. 179. 12. 175. Graham 126 Swinton. 13. 177 Tasker. K. 191. 157 Supernanny 204 Suspicion 81 Swazey. 85. 168. 155–6. 197 visual arts 36 Vonnegut. 128. 102. 164. 165 Videodrome 162 violence in films 44–5. 128 small-town America 84–8.
158. 147–54 Wright. Joe 131 Wyman. John 167 Waters. 72–3 . 95–6.232 Index Wagner. Robert 57 Ziskin. 11–12. 11. 120. Jane 200 You’ve Got Mail 118 youth market for film 24. Sharon 42. 49. 45 Winship. 114–17. 63–5. 92 Zane. Paul 65 Waiting to Exhale 63 Waldfogel. Slavoj 169 Zucker. Andy 16 Waters. Billy 146 Zellwegger. 93. 59 Winslet. Kate 131 Winterson. 208 women film-makers 33–4. 126 Witherspoon. 118–23. Christopher 45 Wall Street 71 Walsh. 103. 72 Willis. Jeanette 36. L. 93. 123 Zemkis. 7. 38. Renee 8. M. 66. Laura 65 Zizek. 51. Jerry 68. Minni 57 Why Change Your Wife? 96 Wife-swap 204 The Wild Ones 193 Williams. Peter 20 War of the Worlds 124 Warhol. Jane 151 Walken. 54–8. 47. John 147 Woolf. 128 White. Imelda 35. Leonard 148–9 Woolf. 140–4. 104. 104–14. 29–30 yuppie horror films 92 ‘yuppie horror’ films 90. Virginia 133. Janet 2. 120–1 When Harry Met Sally 7. 104 Whelan. 196 ‘woman’s film’ as a type 1–3. 117 What Lies Beneath 84 What Women Want 93. Reese 66. Sarah 134 Westlake. 65–6 Wood.
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