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Gender and film Noir in Sin City


Date of Submission
24th May 2007

Dr. Michele Tager

Content page p.


2.1. “The Customer is Always Right” 2
2.2. “ That Yellow Bastard” 2
2.3. “The Hard Goodbye” 3
2.4. “The Big Fat Kill” 4

3.1. Dream Works and the application of psychoanalytical principles 6
3.2. Filmic Apparatus and Laura Mulvey 6
3.2.1. Laura Mulvey and Psychoanalysis 7
3.3. Subversion and the ‘Femme Fatale’ 8
3.4. The Female Madquerade and Hyper-Masculinity in Noir 9
3.4. The World of Noir and Freud’s Structures of the Mind 10

4.1. Filmic Conventions and its affect on Spectatorship 11
4.1.1. Stylistics in Sin City 11
4.2 Sin City: Character Analysis 12
4.1.1. “ The Hard Goodbye” 12
4.1.2. “That Yellow Bastard 14
4.1.3. “The Big Fat Kill” 16




Feminism is a social movement that has had an enormous impact on film theory and criticism. The
portrayal and representation of women has taken on many forms across many different genres, none
more interesting than in film noir. In the aftermath of World War 2, particular in America and France,
people felt that the society was a dark and dangerous place, filled with morbid realities and social
entrapment. This led to the heightened sensitivity around the archetypical construction of gender in
film, as well as capturing a dark and despairing side of the human psyche on celluloid. This morbid
drama phenomenon sort too critique society’s model of morality as well as the role of the individual in
it. Film noir transcends the traditional emancipation gender movement and instead highlights the nature
of society as it produces moral ambiguity and paranoia with noir characters.

Indeed, patriarchal structures are definitely involved but the thematic concerns of film noir revolve
around existence of social groups (i.e. men, women, religion, politics, etc.) that have become self-
regulating in their existence, whilst simultaneously being at the mercy of the interdependency between
groups that defines society. In other words, the characterization in film noir is subjective to the extent
that the role of individuals is to act in accordance with their own sense of morality brought about by
their physical placement into a world that appears to have failed to progress to a unified utopia.
Furthermore, this creates dualistic dissonance within the individual who has to continually reexamine
their placement within a turbulent world in order to achieve the needs of individuals rather than their
compliance with collective normative beliefs.

The depiction of women has been heightened in film noir in a variety of ways including sexuality,
seductiveness and allure. This has lead to women being constructed as manipulative and deceitful as
they aim to persuade and influence men in seemingly evil and self-serving ways (constituting the
classical noir figure, the ‘femme fatale’). However, according to Levi-Strauss theory of binary
opposites, we cannot make assumptions about characters (in this case the men and women) in isolation,
instead, one needs to incorporate both ends of which ever continuum is under analysis (Levi-Strauss in
Fourie, 2001: 152). Therefore, the portrayal of women in film noir cannot be discussed from a singular
standpoint, but rather the portrayal of both men and women has to be taken under considerations, as
well as the context in which they existence. This essay will attempt to analysis the role of gender in
Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City as well as problematise stereotypical
polarizing of gender in this modern neo-noir as it relates to the filmic conventions of Film Noir.

The film is an anthology of four stories from Frank Miller’s “Sin City” series. The underlying thematic
connection between films is the world of the story- Basin City. The city is typical to the noir genre,
whereby decay and dsytopia characterises this morbid and dangerous city. The movie starts with a short
story from Booze, Broads, & Bullets (Miller, 1998) entitled “The Customer is always right”. The film
then includes the first half of That Yellow Bastard (Miller, 1996); The Hard Goodbye ( Miller, 1991);
The Big Fat Kill (Miller, 1994); and then the second half of That Yellow Bastard. After which the final
scene is a unpublished short story that shows the fate of one of the of one of character from The Big
Fat Kill.

3.1. “The Customer is Always Right”
The opening scene presents two unnamed characters that are attending an event of sorts. However, it
quickly becomes clear that they are strangers meeting under dark circumstances. As the title suggests,
the characters are completing a business deal in which the unnamed women has hired this hitman to kill
her. The reasons for this is unclear, however given the nature of the film is can be deduced that she now
finds herself in a situation whereby the is no other way out in the corrupt and unfirgiving city.

3.1. “That Yellow Bastard”
Next is the first half of the story of a nearly retired policemen called John Hartigan who is dealing with
a critical heart condition as he attempts to save a young girl from a sadistic pediaphile named Roark
Junior (a scion of Basin’s cities most powerful family). As he arrives at the suspects location and soon
corners Roark Junior on a peer with the distressed little girl named Nancy. Hartigan shoots Roark’s
hand off as well as dismembering him. It would seem that Hartigan has the Roark Junior trapped when
Bob, his life-long partner, shoots him almost to death. Hartigan then wakes up in hospital, where he
faces Roark Senoir, a high powered statesmen who vows that he will make sure Hartigan gets the best
medical treatment avalaible, only to ensure that he will become the scaogoat for his son’s actions.

The secondly half of the story takes place after The Big Fat Kill. After Hartigan is beaten repeatdly, he
is sent to jail where he continually refuses to admit to the crimes of Roark Junior. He spends eight years
in a small dark cell where his only comfort is the letters he recieves from Nacy. Then Roark Juniour
appears in his newly constructed ‘yellow’ form, he beats Hartigan and then hands him a letter
resembling the ones Nacy sent him. In it is a finger, after believing it to be Nacy’s he signs the
admittence of guilt and it released. He then finds his way to a back-alley bar where he finds Nacy all
grown-up working as a pole dancer. He soon realises that his release was part of the Roark Junior’s
plan to lead him to Nacy. By the time he does so it is to late, Nacy jumps off stage and embraces him.
Hartigan explains the situation and the two quickly leave the bar and drive off to a motel. On the way
the are involved in a car shoot-out with Roark Junior which leaves the persistent peadophile an ear

However, he manages to sneak in the boot of their car and emerges once Hartigan and Nacy arrive at
the motel. He nearly kills Hartigan and captures Nacy and takes her to a ‘The Farm’. Roark Junior then
proceeds to torture Nancy, this is because of his sadistic pleasures, however she holds out long enough
for Hartigan to have his final encounter with Roark. After Roark is left burtally dismanteled, Nacy and
Hartigan head off. Hartigan tells Nancy to leave whilst he reminds and clears his name. Hartigan
believes that as long as he is alive Nancy will never be safe, as a result he commits sucicide by
shooting himself in the head.

2.3. “The Hard Goodbye”
Marc is a gladiator of sorts and his unattractive form makes it hard for to even buy a girl. However, a
mysterious and beautiful women named “Goldie” gives him the night of his life, her reasons unclear
until she is found dead after their night of passion. As soon as Marv awakens and realises she’s dead the
police are already knocking at the door. Marv escapes forcefully and can only conclude that it was a
set-up due to the police’s timely presents at the scene.

He then begins his path of revenge as he kills his way to whoever was behind the murder of Goldie. He
finds out that she was a prostitute from Old Town (a part of town that is ruled by the girls who offer
there services there), and that she was expecting trouble from a serial murder who is responsible for the
dissapearence of a number of working girls from Old Town. Golide’s twin sister, Wendy, suspects that
Marc was in fact the one who killed her sister and captures him and takes him to Old Town. After
conviencing Wendy that he is not responsible for her sisters death, and that if fact he is seeking to
avenge her death, they leave Old Town and make their way to The Farm. This is were Marv found out
that a boy named Kevin is capturing and eating prostitutes from Old Town. Marv sets up a trap to
capture the agilic cannibal and then slowly tortures and kills him.

Marv’s questionable interigation techiniques lead him to Cardinal Roark's heavily gaurded mansion.
Marv penatrates the mansion and enounters and kills the Cardinal. Soon after, the gaurds of the manner
storm in and bring down Marv in a hail of gunfire. He recovers in hospital and is force to sign a
convession of guilt saying that he was the serial killer, he refuses until his mom’s threatened. Marv is
then sentances to death by the courts and then spends his dying thoughts on the electric chair thinking
about Goldie and the one night they shared.

2.4. “The Big Fat Kill”
The last yarn in the film follows Dwight, a ex-phtographer that has a new face and old-fingerprints.
After a run-in with his girlfriend’s womenizing ex-boyfriend (Jack Rafferty) and his thugs, Dwight
follows them to Old Town. He does so because he feels that they are looking for a women’s blood and
he can allow that. Once in Old Town he watches them stalk a hooker, called Becky, down a alleyway.
However, he meets up with Gale (an ex-lover), who assures him that the situation is under control and
one wrong move and they will be dead.

Jack Rafferty pulls a gun on Becky and then one of Old Town’s deadilest inhabitants, Miho, makes
light work of Jack and his commrads. However, after they search the bodies they find that Jack is a cop;
this threatens the entire livelyhood of Old Town because part of the understanding they have with the
police is that they would never kill a cops. The girlsl fear that things will soon be overun by the mob
and the beatings and rapes will start again. Dwight then suggests that they dump the bodies at the tar-

The girls organise Dwight a car and he makes his way to the Pits. Just as he is about to finish the deed a
group of mercenaries attack him and he is left drowning in the tar-pits. Fortunitly for him Miho
manages to save him and they soon persue the mercenaries who now have Jack Rafferty’s head. This is
significant because the head is evidence that there has been fowl play and it will assure the girls of Old
Town’s fate at the hands of the mob. At this point it becomes clear that Becky informed the Mob, in
fear, that they would hurt her mom; as a result she made a deal with them to spare her., a deal the mob
soon betrays.

Dwight and Miho catch-up to the Mercenaries and they obtain Jack’s head through a explosive and
bloody battle. They then return to old town and set-up a exchange, Jack’s head for Gail, who they have
been torturing. The exchange was set-up in a dark and narrow ally, and after they had made the
exchange the girls of Old Town open fire from their vantage point on the roof-tops, no one is left alive
and the girls are able to maintian their way of life.

The final scene is Becky receiving treatment for her wounds in a hospital. She then encounters the
same man from “The Customer is always Right” in the elavator.


Film is taken by feminist to be a cultural practices of representing myths about women and femininity,
as well as men and masculinity. Amoug the first to critque the cinematic construction of women was
Claire Johnston, she drew on Roland Barthes notion of ‘myth’ and questioned the manner in which
women where presented to the viewer as a filmic construction (Cook & Bernink, 1999: 353). The
assumption was that women were being presented negatively when contrasted to their male
counterparts, thus classical cimena was concerned with constructing a particular view of reality that
was hegemonic in its presentation of power between male and female. Claire Johnston used semiotic
frameworked and argued that the women in film function as a sign; one that only makes reference to
the patriarchal ideology of women and there subserveants to men. Hence, the negative, or weak,
presentation of women was because cinema sought to construct ‘women as not-man’, and not ‘women-
as-women’ (Hoofd, 1996).

Feminist film theory, as a critical theory, seeks to examine the distribution of power assigned to gender
roles in film from a number of perspectives, thus being largely more political in their approach.
Theortists such as Somone De Beauvoir and Kate Millett showed during the 70’s how patriarchal
ideologies worked towards presenting ‘women as not-man’. During the early 1970’s, Screen, the
journal of the Society for Education in Film and Television (SEFT), published articles that explored
possible connections between psychoanalysis and film theory. This revealed two areas of application:
firstly, the formal and narrative devices of partricular films where examined, whereby desire,
inhabition, meaning proposed by Freud and later Lacan, asserted to structure mental functioning;
secondly, by using complex ‘metapsychology’ of the cinematic ‘apparatus’ that applied pschological
processes to the expereiences of film-going (Cook & Bernink, 1999: 341-342).

3.1. Dream Works and the application of psychoanalytical principles
Freud believed that "[Dreams are] the royal road to the unconscious." and that they contained important
clues into the human psyche (Weiter, 2004:195), much of his initial research methods involved
questioning his patients on there dream experience’s and using their descriptions as a means of
uncovering their 'true' motivations and perceptions on the world.

Psychoanalytical thinking maintains that dreams are a direct result of incomplete repression of anxiety
producing thoughts that cannot be social expressed due to the explicit rules of the external world
(Kluge, 1999). It is in this vein that dreams are thought exist on two distinct and paradoxical levels.
Firstly, the images and recollections of the dreamer are believe to constitute the manifest content that is
a result of the 'id's' (discussed in 3.2.2) attempt to literally disguise the, secondary, latent content in
order to protect the mind from further, and conscious, anxiety (Flitterman, 2002). It was believed that
these images produced during dreaming were a way in which the mind protected itself of compound
natural urges by 'releasing' them through manifestations that would leave the subject with a sense of
unknowing catharsis, while protecting the conscious mind of these inherent urges. Kluge describes the
dream-work concept in relation to film as follows:

"Film operates on much the same speaks directly to the unconscious, the language of
dreams is one that is not an abstract form of communication such as narrative, but is one that is filled
with images they carry hidden meanings on a latent level. Just so is the language of film organized so
that only a part of the film is communicated in a narrative form - sound and images make up the
majority of the effect." (Kluge, 1999)

Therefore, the nature that is film can be, to a degree, deconstructed in order to unveil a universal
understanding of our thoughts and behaviors that through identification, contributes towards our
enjoyment of the film as it acts as a release mechanism of these id induced impulses.

3.2. Filmic Apparatus and Laura Mulvey
The film viewing experience has long been associated with a suspension of disbelief, while at the same
time involving the viewer in an identification process with the filmic text. Metz (in Cook & Bernik,
1998:348) argues that " watch a film in a cinema is to be seduced, encouraged to regress furtively to
a childhood state where fantasy is permitted free rein". In other words film acts a means to engage
viewers in a dream-like state whereby the images on screen are reminiscent of the sensations and
manifest content caused by the unconscious identification with the latent content. This is a result of
what is know as the 'Apparatus' theory. The concept is that the cinematic process involves a number of
tangible and intangible elements that lead to an object/subject relationship that allows this 'filmic
apparatus' to imitate the processes of the human unconscious (Fourie, 2002:227).
The result of the Apparatus theory is that the image seen by the viewer is essentially absent. The visual
array of information the viewer experiences (characters, settings, dialogue, etc.) is projected as an
intangible spectacle, it is only on the film's celluloid that the concreteness of any variable information
can be located and measured. In other words "the actors, the events, that depict the content are
physically absent and exists merely as light and sound on celluloid; that exists only in and through the
camera and projector signals, which are themselves empty forms that have no existence outside the
total filmic apparatus." (Fourie, 2002:227). Thus film is recognized as an 'imaginary signifier' that
serves purely as a means through which the viewer can 'engage' in the process of identification and

By understanding the relationship between the nature of signs and codes in filmic texts, psychoanalysis
offers an approach to semiotics that incorporates unconscious mental processes of the mind outline by
Sigmund Freud. However, feminist film theorists argue that the apparatus theory illuminates the
patriarchal structure of cinema, and thus said to reinforce a gender hierarchy in which female pleasure
in defined by male pleasure (Allen, 1998:121). This feminist approach was given theoretical grounding
through Laura Mulvey, a contemporary psychoanalytical feminist writer,

3.2.1. Laura Mulvey and Psychoanalysis
In 1975, Laura Mulvey presented her explaination of pleasure and fascination of film, offering a unique
approach to feminist film theory. Through applying psychoanalytical principles, Mulvey show that a
literary or cultural work is always structured by complex and often contridictorary human desires. In
1989, Laura Mulvey’s comments on the use of psychoanlysis was published by Screen:

“There is no way in which we can produce an alternative [to ‘the phallocentric order’] out of the blue,
but we can begin to make a break by examining patriarchy with the tools it provides…Pyschoanalytic
theory as it now stands can at least advance our understanding of the status quo, of the patriarchal order
in which we are caught” (Mulvey in Cook & Bernink, 1999: 242)

In Mulvey’s groundbreaking article ‘Visual pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (Mulvey in Fourie,
2004:397), she proposes that film offers the veiwer a sense of voyeristic pleasure through witnessing
the imagernary signifier that is fim; a notion she described through scopophila, meaning the desire to
see (Mulvey in Cook & Bernink, 1999: 242). Furhtermore, her criticism of traditional Hollywood
cinema suggested that scopophila was a active and and passive process that is gendered. In other words,

the agency constructed through visual narratives in Hollywood cinema is patriarchal baised towards the
objectification of the female form, hence male characters actions are viewed as active and powerful,
whilst female characters are objectified as a source of male pleasure.

This approach has interesting implications for film Noir, because although patriarchal narrative
paradigms still exist in noir, the viewer is presented with a highented sense of division between the sign
system in which the male and female characters exist and the characters themselves. This distortion
was a result of male authority and agency being under threat during the war years as partriachal failed
(Cook & Bernink, 1999: 186), resulting in the polarising of gender presentation in Film Noir.
Furthermore, Mulvey comments on the way in which narrative and visual techniques in cinema make
voyerism an exculsively male prerogative. Interestingly, Film Noir’s visual asethics seem to support
Mulvey’s feminist application of the cinematic-apparatus theory in relation to

3.3. Subversion and the ‘Femme Fatale’
The undermining of patriarchal ideology caused the subversion of gender in noir because the division
between feminity and masculinity left void of order and power. This caused a sense of male anxiety
over the phallocentric order of agency within noir narratives, hence the rise of the ‘femme fatale’ as it
acts to encapsulate the visual pleasure obtained by objectifying the female character as was as male
anxiety of castration by a powerful female. This is because the lack of social authority in the noir genre
causes male fetishism, of the female body, to be questioned due to the lack of male potency in
sustaining order. The issue of power and order is thus created through the characters ability to recapture
the phallus; in orther words the noir genre subverts gender, in the traditional narrative sense, by
underminng patriarchiacal means of order and social structure.

Film Noir is distinguished by an unsetimental portrayal of crime, violence, and sex (or ‘Hardboiled’),
this results in a type of social darwinism that operates in noir. It can be said that with the absents of a
clear-cut social structure (albeit patriarchal), the sense of morality created by the natural progression of
society collapses. Therefore, both male and female are no longer bound by the nuturing enviroment,
instead they are force to embrace ‘nature’; by this it is meant that the physical aspect of both male and
female become the source of power within noir. Hence, the femme fatale becomes powerful because
the male gaze is used to attract the male into harms way, this is because the gaze is something they no
longer control. In addition, the male’s sense of fetishism towards the female is heightened because the
lack of phallocentric control over her. This is because the orginal fetishism of the female body was
cause by their lack of a phullas and fear of castration, in noir however, the female is no longer define as
a lacking a phyiscal phallus. Here we can see that because there is no phallocentric order in noir, the
male fetishism towards the female is reversed, in terms of the presents/absents of a phallus, and
intensified because of the instinctual desire to reduce the castration anxiety. Hence, the male gaze
becomes the channel for male anxiety because the femme fatale contains both attraction, whilst
paradoxically opening the possiblity of ‘castration’.

3.4. The Female Madquerade and Hyper-Masculinity in Noir
It has become a general assumptions of feminist film thoery that female spectators are more fluid in
their capacity to identitfy with the other gender. Joan Riviere states that women who find themselves in
a male positions of authority “put on a mask of feminity that functions as compensation for their
masculin position” (Riviere in Cook & Bernink, 1999: 356). The male gaze involves voyerism, which
presupposes distance, females lack this necessary distance because they are the image. However in
noir, the female madquerade is no longer because the position of power is no longer determined by
patriarchy structures. Instead, feminity is a source of power that is able to create authority within the
noir narrative. It is in this vein that masculinity is then seemingly heightened in order to re-establish
authority, however, this becomes problematic because the system at large no longer up holds
phallocentric ideals of power and authority.

Hypermasculinity involves the exaggeration of male atereotypical behaviour, such as strenght,
aggression, body hair, and virility. In film noir, the world of the story is dystopic and filled with
suspision due to the absence of formal morality and structure, in this vein, masculinity is polarised to
compensate for this absence. In traditional noir narratives the protaganist is someone, mostly
commonly male, tied directly to the crime. The protagonist then attempts to navigate the dark and
dangerous urban streets in the hope of resolving the suspision brought about by the crime. The use of
sex and sexual-relationships is commonly used to advance the plot, this tipifes the the journey the male
protaginist has to travel in noir. The male has a desire to resolve the issue at hand by commiting himself
to confrount the world in which he finds himself, a world that is no longer order by patriarchal logic.
Therefore, in order to reduce this anxiety the noir male instensifies his gaze and behaviour in order to
reduce the equivocaulity cause by decentrialised male authority.

3.5.The World of Noir and Freud’s Structures of the Mind
According to original Freudian psychoanalysis, there are three basic structures that, together,
determined the nature of the mind; they are the 'ego', 'superego' and the 'id' (Weiten, 2004:481). It is
through the interaction of these three elements that the majority of psychoanalytical assumptions are
based. Wieten defines these terms, rather simplistically, as follow:

"The id is the primitive, instinctive component of personality that operates according to the pleasure
principle (instincts such as hunger, sex, thirst)...The ego is the decision-making component, that
operates according to the reality principle... The superego is the moral component, that incorporates
social standards about what represents right and wrong." (Wieten, 2004:481).

Therefore it can be assume that the superego operates in alignment with patriarchy because the moral
structures derive from a generally male-centered ideology. In Noir the superego is unable to present a
clear morality standpoint and the result is moral ambiguity and anxiety. The manner in which society is
operating is no longer in accordance with conventional logic, with this the superego no longer able to
mediate between its socialized normative values and instinctual predispositions. This

As a result the Id component cause urges such as sex, violence and other primitive needs to be
heightened; these are common themes in Sin City. Because of the lack of ‘phallocentric’ order in Sin
City, and the fact that as Mulvey indicated that cinema narratives and conventions favor male
spectatorship, male characters in noir, as well as the cinematic gaze, seemingly resend to primitive
biological urges of the id. However, because of the phallic nature of textual identification within
cinema, the representation of women is also affected by this emergence of the id impulses. In this vein,
women are heightened as the object of desire in Noir, however this voyeuristic gaze is the lure of Noir
because they are, retrospectively, dangerous and powerful characters within the narrative. Interestingly,
this polarization of gender roles is orientated around the phallus and power, this is because even in a
patriarchal society the phallus is ultimately not a male feature; it is instead a symbol of power and
authority and thus desirable by both male and female, and in Film Noir the displacement of power
results in male anxiety and omnipresent emergence of female agency within the film.

The Ego component is aware of both the needs of the id and the super ego, and subsequently has to
match the wishes of them. It is governed by the ‘reality principle’ because the result of satisfying both
the id and the superego must be represented in the real world (Hergenhahn, 2005:488). When the ego is
overwhelmed by either the id or the superego the ego reacts by making use of defense mechanism (e.g.
denial, displacement, repression, sublimation, reaction formation).

In noir, the lack of social order and structure cause the ego to utilize these mechanism in order to
reduce, especially male, anxiety. This occurs through filmic conventions of composition and
spectatorship in noir. Because the thematic concerns of film


As mentioned in 3.1, the film experience is similar to that of dreams. This oneiric correlation allows for
analysis of specific elements within film that act as signifiers for the patriarchal displacement found in
the socio-historical context in which Noir originated. Hence, Film Noir’s filmic conventions and
narrative can be explained through psychoanalytical principles of spectatorship as they disguise latent
content (i.e. displacement of phallocentric order) through manifest content (the actual projected
images). The following section will address the how filmic conventions affect gender identification
within Sin City, as well as offer an account of how the gender is portrayed within each sub-story.

4.1. Filmic Conventions and its affect on Gender Identification
There are a number of filmic elements that are common to the Noir genre; this section will highlight a
number of these elements in Sin City as they function within the film.

4.1.1. Stylistics in Sin City
The majority of scenes in Film Noir are lit for night and actors and the setting are given equal lighting
emphasis (Simpson et al, 2004:153). This convention is even more dominant in Sin City, due to
technological means. It can be argued that this lack of clear distinction between characters and the
setting (i.e. patriarchal/phallocentric order) emphasizes the loss of patriarchal order at the time of Noir
inception. This signifies to the viewer that the moral ambiguity and insecurity experienced by the male
protagonists are aligned with environment in which they find themselves. Furthermore, because,
according to Mulvey, the camera is male in its orientation, it is only appropriate that the spectator
experiences this insecurity. In other words, the darkness of the film represents the patriarchal disruption
and the lack of distinction between character and setting is a result of the world being defined by
patriarchal order in crisis.

In the Film Noir compositional tension is preferred to physical tension, and oblique and vertical lines
are preferred to horizontal (Simpson et al, 2004:153). This element of Film Noir is especially utilized
in Sin City and the results in primary cinematic identification with the action of perception (Allen,
1998:120). The result in the film is a rather oppressive style of composition that frames characters in an
awkward manner. Because the framing is directly oppositional to the conventional American Tradition
of Griffith and Ford, it can be said that then the composition is Film Noir is once again representative
of a male-ordered world under threat. This state is based on the assumption that if, as stated by Mulvey
(in Cook & Bernink, 1999:353), conventional cinema is exclusively male and represents an ideal
homeostasis between male identification and socio-cultural norms (i.e. patriarchal order is
undisturbed), then Film Noir would account for the disruption of these conventions that would reflect
this patriarchal disorder.

The most interesting of the Noir conventions, operating in Sin City, is the complex chronological order
of events used to reinforce the feeling of hopelessness and lost time (Simpson et al, 2004:154).
According to basic narrative paradigm, outline by Fourie (2004:142), the narrative builds towards a
single climax; this is consistent with male sexual orientation and the patriarchal narrative structure
criticized by Mulvey. However, Sin City consists of a number of complete sub-stories that offer the
complete range of narrative elements from exposition to climax. This ‘multi-climatic’ structure is then,
subsequently, female if the disrupted patriarchal theme in Noir is applied. Furthermore, the protagonists
in the majority of these sub-stories are killed in the climax. Hence, if the climax is considered the
highest point of enjoyment in film, it can be said that the enjoyment of the film is at the expense of the
male protagonists. Female spectatorship is affect by this because the narrative structure is similar to the
functions of the femme fatale, in that gratification is achieved through the manipulation of the male in
order to achieve female needs. In addition, the concept of pleasure at the expense of multiple partners
has generally been regarded as a male stereotype, thus the dissemination of patriarchal order in Noir
affects female spectatorship through latent narrative construction and structuring.

The idea of this chronological disorientation inducing a sense of hopelessness and lost time describes
the male spectator’s sense of entrapment within the narrative. There is no ‘light and then end of the
tunnel’ for male spectatorship in Noir because the setting is always dark and daylight never appears.
This is a metaphor for the uncertainty of whether patriarchal order will return, this acts as almost a
‘false-climax’ for the male spectator because enjoyment of the narrative never, traditional speaking,
occurs. Hence the male is seduced into a visual spectacle that never resolves their repressed anxieties, it
is in this sense that Sin City, as a contemporary Noir, can be seen, oneiricly speaking, as a nightmare
rather than a dream.

4.2 Sin City: Character Analysis
The following section offers an analysis of the main characters presented in the film, from a critical
perspective. Each of the main characters and their function will be addressed as they pertain to gender
representation in the film; this analysis is based on the psychoanalytical principles outline in the
previous section.

4.2.1 The Hard Goodbye
The “Hard Goodbye” begins a passionate scene that typifies the polarization of gender in the film.
Marv represents hyper-masculinity and virility in the film; he is violent, misguided and requires
medication in order to subdue his omnipresent distort view of reality. Marv’s character symbolizes the
masculine crisis in the film; his instinctual id impulses govern his behavior and his ultra-violent
tendencies are disturbing. Marv’s lack of moral direction is a product of the lack of phallocentric
authority in the film, and when Goldie offers herself to him he gladly and sees this as a bifurcation
point in his life that gives him meaning and direction, albeit misguided. The story is presented to the
viewer from Marv’s perspective and from that the male gaze is distorted because the world of noir
symbolically traps phallic power and its potency through interaction and not to a specific gender. This
reason for this is that in the film there is uncertainty on where power lies and the film constantly
present different sources of power between genders.

In this vein, we can come to understand how Goldie forms the femme fatale in this story as she uses
Marv, and his hyper-masculinity, in the hope that he will be able to protect her. However she is
portrayed as a goddess as she makes love to Marv, and it is important to note that although Goldie
seeks out protection from Marv, she has a twin sister who seemingly forms her opposite construct.
Therefore, her need to find a man for protection is secondary to her realization that her pursuers are of
high power and her doom is inevitable. It is for this reason that she uses Marv as a retrospective tool of
revenge. Knowingly she selects him, and all his hyper-masculinity, because her fate has been
determined and by manipulating the male gaze of Marv, she is able to ensure her revenge.
Retrospectively, as one of the bosses of Old Town, Goldie has willingly sacrificed herself to save other
girls from death because Marv is successful in bringing down the culprits. In essence, Goldie turns the
libidinal energy of the phallus against itself, using Marv as her vessel. Hence, although Goldie is
presented as a object of desire, her plan resulted in a feminine victory not a masculine one. This
paradox is embedded in the femme fatale because the fetishism present in the male escalates in the
hyper-masculine character of Marv, and hence, his libidinal energy, sparked by Goldie, is used against
him and ultimately lends to his doom.
Goldie’s killer Kevin is a young man who is disturbed and filled with guilt. Kevin symbolizes the youth
of Sin City being born into a world were masculinity is in crisis; as a result Kevin feels guilt from his
masculinity and resorts to cannibalism. In senator Roark’s final moments he reveals that through eating
the prostitutes, Kevin also eats their souls. Through feeding Kevin is feminised as he attempts to regain
power through his comsumption of female lidibanal energy. Interestingly, at one point Kevin captures
Marv and even though he had the oppurtunity to victimise him, he abstains; hence confirming that
Marv’s hyper-masculine soul is of no interest to him. Kevin’s subconscious need to be empowered is
mirrored in Senator Roark. Roark too realises his lack of potency and seeks power from the high
position in the church, a historically patriarchal structure. When he encounters Kevin, he joins in on the
feast and he too hopes to be feminised through this ceremonial feasting, because the status and power
historically associated with the church is threaten with the callapse of a patriachal control.

The contrast of Marv’s hyper-masculinity and Kevins withering masculinity in their fight scene, makes
for intersting observations. Here we can see the the ‘Female Madquerad’ (discussed in 3.3.) working
contradictingly. Kevin uses agility and his nails as weapons, typically female attributes; Marv has to
‘level’ the playing fields because he cannot compete with this feminised opponent, hence Marv
handcuffs Kevin to his body and exposes Kevin’s lack to masculine power. Thereby, demasking
Kevin’s feminity and reasserting his masculinity over him.

4.2.2. “That Yellow Bastard”
The protagonist of Hartigan represents the last of a dying bread, he is a old man who has come to
release that the world no longer holds the values he was raise on. Hartigan is constantly reminded of his
lack of male potency as he strives to overcome Roark Junior and his sadistic sexual urges. Roark Junior
repeadendly taunts him saying “you can’t even lift that cannon your carrying” (Rodriguez & Miller,
2005), refering to his masculinity. Hartigan attempts to assert his masculinity over Roark by
dismembering him and saving a little girl from his sadistic acts. In psychoanalysis the Thanos is one’s
innate desire to return to the inorganic state in order to ‘release’ ourselves from the continual struggles
of satisfying our biological needs (Hergenhahn, 2005:489). Hartigan realizes that he can no longer
physically entertain his sexual urges in a morally acceptable way and because of this he, to some
degree envious of Roark Junior’s sexual encounters. Subsequently, his ego is spared this realization
through his rationalization of his urges, he continually states “Nancy Callahan, age 11” (Rodriguez &
Miller, 2005) and through which his actions of saving her without the intent of harming her can be
recognized as a form of ‘sublimation’, whereby he directs his potentially maladaptive urge to reinstate
his sexual prowlness with the heroic act of saving a little girl from death. The conflict again emerges
when he gets out of jail and is confronted with Nancy at age 19, at this point he realizes that he has lead
Roark Junior to her and again has to play the protector; furthermore he denies Nancy’s advancements in
order to spare his ego, this is because his questionable masculinity would surely fold under Nancy’s
femininity. Once again, Hartigan is aware that he is no longer able to satisfy his sexual urges and his
Thanos drives him to kill himself in order to ‘release’ him from his struggle to satisfy his biological

Roark Junior is part of the powerful Roark family that dewls in Basin City and is requirred to carry on
the family name. However, Roark is determined to stamp his power on women in their most innocent
form, being very young girls. In doing so he obtains sexual gratification through torturing them until
them scream, at which point he is now able to carry out the rape. This sadistic act is rooted in Roark
Juniors inability to healthly compete for power with women in Basin City, his castration anxiety is
heightened because of the pressure of being the last Roark male. Ironically, it is through Hartigan that
this anxiety is materialises when Hartigan dismembers him with his ‘gun’, just after Roark mocks
hartigan because he ‘couldn’t get it up’.

When Roark Junior returns after his operation and re-memberment, his masculinity is simlutaneously
intensified, due his contrasting yellow appearance, and underthreat because his fear of castration by his
attempted victim. This is why he feels it nessasary to kill his victims in their youth because once they
have matured their feminity is a threat to his masculinity. But in order to reassert his authority of Nacy
he has to complete the sexual act his started, hence he uses Hartigan’s own defensive sublimations to
locate her.

Nancy is the object of desire throughout the film. She is portrayed as being sexually provocative and
the centre of desire for all the protagonist. However, her objectification is empowering in the film
because the power she obtains from it has no masculine equal, she indirectly takes the form of the
femme fatale for this reason. Nancy’s objectification in the film is a product of her character history,
rather than the narrative. Her early experieces with a pediaphile and abusive boyfriends has caused her
to use her sexuality to taunt masculinity in the film, furthermore the fact that the hyper-masculine Marv
is her protector allows her to do so. Roark Junior realises this and feels it nessasary to assert his
masculinity over her, even when he recaptures her he is unable to break her because she has become
what he fears, a strong women who choices not to give in to his sadistic pleasure. This redures him
impotent and symbolically castrated by her.

4.2.3. “The Big Fat Kill”
Dwight is one of the most interesting characters in the film. He was once a victim of a femme fatale in
previous back stories and now has a new face. His story is not as much about his masculinity as it is
about the girls of Old Town. After threating Shelly’s ex-boyfriends manhood, he feels it nessacary to
prevent them from spilling women’s blood. However this act of female protection is soon disrupted
when Jack heads towards Old Town, where the girls can handle themselves. This early contrast in the
story emphasises the films subversion of gender roles because the traditional male hereo who ,literally,
leaps out of windows to save a helpless female is undermined when the self-empowered girls of Old
Town are involved. Dwight is forced to tack a back seat as he watches Jack and his shovinistic friends
being slaughtered by Miho (yeilding a phallic pair of swords). Jacks masculinity is seriously questioned
and his demise is further highlighted when we contrast his authority in the first scene. This is similar to
the character arc of the femme fatale because the orginal characteristics of Dwight (strong, heoric, etc)
are reversed by the end of this sub-story; must like the femme fatale being presented as an object but
then turing out to be the ultimate down fall of the protagonists in Noir.

Dwight is reunited with Gail who is one of leaders of Old Town. Like many of the girls of Old Town
she is dressed in alluring atire, resembling many of the typical male fantasys; once again the girls of
Old Town are objectivified in a sense. However the power they posses is reminisent of separist feminist
ideals and although they offer themselves as prostitutes they are very much in control of this sexual act.
The have choosen to construct their own social order in which males are viewed as visiters and not
authority. These warrior women are ultimately empowered through their own means and answer to
themselves. The women of Old Town use violence and sex to maintain control; the combination of this
is traditional a male one and one Marv failed to ultilise, however the world of noir doesn’t recognise
the distiction and thus a city of potential femme fatales emerges. This simulatoeus presentations of
dangerous and alluring women is the cause of male spectator anxiety as they undergo the identification
process presupposed in the apparatus theory.


The application of pscyhoanalysis to film yeilds interesting results in terms of spectatorship and gender.
The filmic conventions and narrative structure of Film Noir allows for an array of intriging
interprestations into gendered spectatorship. It has been discussed how the filmic conventions of Noir
function in a psychoanalytical framework resulting in a level of gender subversion through patriachal
displacement and disorder. An interesting question to pose from this paper is that if the dipiction of
gender in Sin City can be trace to the orgin of Noir’s filmic conventions operating within this
contemporary Noir, how is its placement in the 21st century justified? If film acts as a reflection of the
socio-culture context in which it arises, then can the disruption of patriachal order be localised in the
current state of the global community? In this vein, can contemporary Noir’s be place in accordance to
global instabilities? Blade Runner’s (1982) dystopic themes of identity around the Cold War; Fight
Club’s (1999) obsesion with hyper-reality and the 2000 Y2K anxiety; and now Sin City with the
onmipresent threat of global terrorism? This inductive logical can only apply if film historians can
agree that classification of genre is not merely a specific piont in time, but rather genre acts as a means
of social commentry at the time of production.


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