You are on page 1of 7

Latonio !

Gelsey Latonio


Eng 280: Film History after 1939

Dr. Steven Woodward

November 23, 2016

I Always Wanted to be a Gangster: How Goodfellas and Bonnie and Clyde Challenge Gender


Since its debut in the 1930s, the American gangster film is recognized to be male

centered and male dominated as a genre. John McCarty said, Like the Western, the gangster

movie has been a male-dominated genre for most of its existence, much like the underworld it

depicts (76). As a result, women subsequently play secondary or supporting roles, as illustrated

by Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) in the film Goodfellas (1990). While there are a few exceptions

of leading ladies, such as Arthur Penns Bonnie and Clyde (1967) generally, very few gangster

films feature women. While this absence of women on the big screen is still a reoccurring issue

on the contemporary film stage, it is important to recognize that when included, women play

particularly significant roles in the gangster genre. Arthur Penn and Martin Scorsese, for

example, include strong and energetic women in their respective films that defy societys

traditional expectations of women. In this paper, I will investigate how Penn and Scorsese

portray their female characters and argue that Bonnie Parker and Karen Hill challenge the

traditional gender stereotypes of women during the 1960s and 1990s. Specifically, I will
Latonio !2

investigate how Karen Hills character challenges the good wife stereotype, while Bonnie

Parkers character defies the traditional qualities associated with the female gender, such as

virtue and docility, and instead, portrays a fearless and ruthless woman.

Under societys traditional gender expectations, the woman is an abiding, docile, and

compassionate individual who supports her husband by managing the home. She manages to take

care of the children, cook hearty and healthy meals, all while maintaining her appearances and

composure for the likes of her husband. In Goodfellas, Karen Hill challenges the traditional

qualities attributed with femininity with her matter-a-fact and assertive personality rejecting the

good housewife stereotype. The earliest exhibit of Karens untraditional behavior occurs when

at the beginning of their relationship, Henry does not show up to his double date leaving Karen

partnerless. As a result of the humiliation, Karen charges to the mob hangout and loudly

interrogates Henry on his absence in front of the surrounding company in the middle of the

street. In this scene, Karen is dressed and groomed like the perfect housewife in her red dress,

delicate pearls, and kept hair but her behavior juxtaposes the clean-cut image.

This assertive behavior inevitably furthers into aggression after Karen learns of her

husbands infidelities and threatens to shoot Henry while he is asleep. Henry is ultimately able to

calm down his frantic wife as Karens narration plays during the dramatic scene admitting, How

could I hurt him? I couldnt even bring myself to leave him. The truth was, that no matter how

bad I felt, I was still very attracted to him. Although Henry continues with his unfaithful

behavior, it is suggested that Karen holds a great deal of power in their relationship. After the

confrontation, Paulie and Jimmy confront Henry about his wifes frantic behavior saying that her

unpredictable behavior may breach mob security. These two instances demonstrate an
Latonio !3

untraditional power dynamic within the couple. Although Henry is the dominant individual in the

relationship concerning money and status, it is suggested that Karen also has a certain power

over her husband. In one instance, Karen holds Henrys life in her hands as she straddles her

husband with a gun pointed at his head but ultimately settles down and in the other, she threatens

the mobs wholesome family oriented image and inspires retaliatory infidelities by the other


Another way in which Karen defies societys gender expectations is her participation in

her husbands illicit lifestyle to satisfy her obsession with the luxurious lifestyle of a gangsters

wife. While the traditional woman is wholesome and innocent, Karen participates in her

husbands illegal business enthusiastically and in some cases, encourages his fleets. Her first

taste of the power of status and money occurs at the beginning of the film when the couple dines

at the Copacabana. As the couple walks through exclusive pathways and is greeted by other

wealthy couples, Karen is blown away by her husbands recognition, status, and power. This

scene illustrates her first fascination and ultimate seduction to the gangster lifestyle. Her fixation

on luxury is also seen when she asks Henry for some money, but instead of requesting a specific

sum, Karen motions to the thickness of the pile of money she desires.

Ultimately, her lifestyle becomes an addiction and Karen must find ways to support her

husband so that he can feed her latest obsession. Towards the end of the film, Karen becomes

more involved with Henrys operations, for example, smuggling drugs for him while he is in jail,

and later abetting her husband by flushing $60,000 worth of cocaine down the toilet in an effort

to not be caught by the police. These scenes illustrate that Karen is clearly not the traditional

good housewife. Her support of her husband exploits suggests that she not only agrees but
Latonio !4

encourages his work because of the adrenaline and rewards it bears for her. Arguably, Karen is

pleased that her husband has discovered a way to make a surplus of money so that their family

lives comfortably. It appears that Karen finds this much more satisfying and rewarding than

earning money through legal means.

Scorseses portrayal of Karen Hill is significant not only because it offers a non-

traditional and unconventional portrayal of women as wives and mothers, but it also provides an

insight into the challenges of the gangsters family. While the husbands, fathers, brothers, and

uncles are committing illegal crimes, the wives and children are left to suffer. One is never sure if

the safety of their husband or their family will be compromised resulting in a life of paranoia

and mania. Scorsese emphasizes this untapped perspective by giving the audience access to

Karens thoughts. Notably, other than the Henrys, Karen narration is the only other character the

audience hears from re-emphasizing her authority in the plot and suggesting that what she has to

say is, in fact, important.

Another female character that challenges societys traditional gender expectations is

Bonnie Parker of Arthur Penns Bonnie and Clyde. The biographical film features the real life

couple that committed a number of small heists and robberies during the Great Depression. Prior

to Penn, femininity in the gangster genre was dominated completely by men, however, his

portrayal of a ruthless lethal female criminal challenged the traditional social expectations of

women, such as virtue and honesty.

Released in 1967s, the second wave feminist movement was well underway changing the

image of women within society. The traditional view of femininity and womanhood was

evolving and constantly challenged through various social and political reforms. Bonnie Parker
Latonio !5

illustrates some of the most notable changes of women of this time specifically, her radical and

sensual sense of self. At the beginning of the film, Bonnies physical appearance is highlighted

with a close up to her red and wet lips. This seductive and sensual tone is carried out through the

film, highlighting the womans attractive physical qualities. The height of this effect occurs when

a nude and confident Bonnie entices Clyde through a window. Her untroubled attitude towards

her naked body and association with sex illustrates her boldness that would be considered taboo

before second wave feminism.

Despite Penns focus on her physical appearances, Bonnie is not suggested to be a sexual

object. This is illustrated through her relationship with Clyde and her sexual advances towards

him. After their initial meet, Bonnie is very obviously infatuated with Clyde and his criminal

persona. In the car, she makes physical advances towards him but Clyde denies her and states, I

aint no lover boy. Despite many attempts and near consummations, Clyde continues to oppose

physical intimacy with his partner leaving Bonnie to channel her unrequited passion into crime.

This dynamic between them ultimately conflicts with the traditional roles within a relationship.

In Penns film, Bonnie is seeking sexual satisfaction and physical intimacy with Clyde who

refuses her multiple advances. Her actions in the film reflect the woman of the 1960s who began

to take ownership of their sexuality and the evolutionary dynamics of the heterosexual

relationship. Instead of showcasing the moral and virtuous woman, Penn challenges societys

view and expectations that females are required to control their sexual desires.

These examples, in addition to Penns stark contrast to the character, Blanche, a

representation of traditional women and Bonnie, a portrayal of the free and controversial women,

asks the audience to question their pre-existing gender stereotypes by directly comparing their
Latonio !6

differences. Bonnie and Clyde is a revolutionary film not only in its cinematography but also for

creating the role of a woman who is equally ruthless and violent as her male partner.

The gangster film is unique for its ability to provide insight into a fantastic and unfamiliar

world that few have access to. Notably, the genre is not confined to a certain period as

demonstrated by the number of gangster films that are released in contemporary society because

of its entertaining and captivating subject matter. More than this, the genre and its directors have

the liberty to challenge their audiences traditional conventions and way of thinking because of

the already taboo subject matter. Ultimately, Scorsese and Penn demonstrate why a film is an

important medium of communication: because it allows an individual to create a world in which

traditional social conventions are challenged, such as the stereotypes that exist against women.

Bonnie Parker and Karen Hill ultimately illustrate to the audience, past and present, that women

are indeed, dynamic and dimensional.

Latonio !7

Works Cited

Bonnie and Clyde. Directed by Arthur Penn, performances by Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway,

Michael J. Pollad, Gene Hackman, Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, 1967

Goodfellas. Directed by Martin Scorsese, performances by Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe

Presci, Lorraine Bracco, Warner Bros. Pictures, 1990.

McCarty, John. Bullets Over Hollywood: The American Gangster Picture from the Silents to

The Sopranos. Cambridge: Da Capo, 2004. Print.