Thursday, 8 March 2012

"Dangerous" Cinematic Women Studies

The above is a short video primer by Catherine Grant. It offers an audiovisual introduction to issues of gender, sexuality and movement in relation to Rita Hayworth's performance as Gilda in Charles Vidor's 1946 film.
The femme fatale is a product of the male imaginary, which emerges in literature and the visual arts under contingent socio-political conditions as a challenge to coherent and stable identities. [...]
     The emergence of the femme fatale motif in literature, art and cinema generally coincides with periods of social or political instability and is not specific to a culture, society or era, but exhibits countless masks as she may manifest herself in diverse historical or geo-political contexts, and through a variety of artistic and literary forms. She embodies traces of a myriad of powerful, as well as menacing, historical, biblical and mythical female figures, such as Cleopatra, Salome, or the Sirens; yet this wicked and barren creature is always imbued with an alluring beauty and rapacious sexuality that is potentially deadly to man. The femme fatale figure is a recurrent patriarchal construct, a projection of all that exists beyond that which is normal, familiar, or safe. As Rebecca Stott observes, she is a multiple sign, or ‘the Other around whom the qualities of all Other collect in the male imagination’ (1992: 39). As such, her appearances are always symptomatic of a society in crisis.
[Eva Bru-Domínguez, 'The Body as a Conflation of Discourses: The femme fatale in Mercè Rodoreda’s Mirall trencat' (1974)', Journal of Catalan Studies 2009]
[I]s it possible that the tangled webs of violence, sexuality, pathology, and intrigue at the core of certain film noir offer moments of reversal and exception which challenge women's role as eternal victim? How is an anti-feminist backlash or male anxiety around women's power projected into these paranoid film scenarios? To what extent can such disruptions be contained through conventional "happy family" closure - or through the violent death of the (anti-)heroine whose glittering image lingers as the credits rolls? Working against the inescapable grain of the "repressive rule" of female victimhood, I choose here to seize on the exceptional figure of the "fatale femme." While the exception may help define the rule, she also keeps alive the possibility, the inevitability, of transformation in gendered relations of power. [Julianne Pidduck, The "fatal femme" in contemporary Hollywood film noir: reframing gender, violence, and power, Masters Thesis, Concordia University, 1993: 6-7]
Rather than promoting images of women that emphasize their spirit and unknowable power, and rather than promoting images of women that rely on their bodies, finally, we need to illustrate the contexts that inform women’s experience. I want to suggest some of the reasons why we’ve grown accustomed to identifying film noir’s “femme fatale” without examining these contexts that inform her presence in film noir, by doing just that: examining the settings—social, psychological, political, physical, and geographical—that define her experience, which is, I want strongly to suggest, a far better thing to define than “woman” herself.
     This study seeks to modify the tone of feminist discussions about film noir’s women by reorienting our attention to the narrative, social contexts, and mise-en-scene that show the relationship between women’s powers and the limits placed on them by social rules. Both the view of the “femme fatale” as misogynist projection and the view of the “femme fatale” as opaque yet transgressive female force emphasize her status as object or symbol (as object of scorn or as the mysterious and opaque “other” that threatens to destroy the male subject). My aim is to adjust our focus on film noir and gender so that we illuminate these women’s narratives rather than mystifying women as objects or images.
[Julie Grossman, Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir: Ready for Her Close-Up (London: Palgrave/BFI, 2009): 5. Book info.]
Film Studies For Free wishes its reader a very happy International Women's Day with a varied curatorial selection of online scholarly work touching on possibly the most studied 'object' in all of feminist film theory: the 'dangerous' woman, sometimes fatal, sometimes a fatality...

If you are a film goer you know her kind. She is attractive, alluring, enigmatic, enticing, teasing, siren-like. Totally tautological. You might come across her dancing in a cinematic cabaret or show, smoking in a private detective's office, gracing a film noir alleyway, or haunting a difficult to decipher flashback. Or turning up like a beautiful but bad penny, provoking your scopophilia (and/or your epistemophilia), just about anywhere in almost every period of international film history.

Just what is it about these cinematic women? There certainly isn't one answer to that question, but the studies linked to below might very well help you to begin to tackle it.

If there are any important online resources that FSFF has missed, please do list them in the comments thread.


Steve Bennison said...

Sheila O'Malley: Five Things About Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy - The Sheila Variations 2011

Should surely be on the Dangerous Women list. Always goes down well with my classes!

Catherine Grant said...

Thanks Steve. That's a wonderful (and wonderfully illustrated) essay. Very glad to have it in the list.