Women in Film Noir IV – Containment and Conformity

As i noted in the previous section the representation and then containment of the strong and/or desiring women is  an integral element in film noir (and Hollywood cinema’s) narratives. This representation and containment is determined by, and engages with, the cultural context of America in the late 1930s to the late 1950s. In regard to the representation of women, the vast de- and re-territorialization of the domestic and work sphere during and after WWII is an important determining factor. D&G’s concept of de- and re-territorialization illustrates the process whereby a labour-power is freed from a specific mode of production or territory and then returned. The series of “Inclosure Acts” passed in the United Kingdom during the period of 1750-1860 is a prime example of this process of de- and re-territorialization. The Inclosure Acts forcibly removed any access to common land and animal pasture. The consequence of this act was that many workers were left without the ability to continue working on the land they relied upon. Therefore the Inclosure Act forced thousands of workers to move from self-sustained, rural cottage industries into urban-centred industries. The Inclosure Act de-territorialized workers by freeing their labour from the land (the territory) they traditionally worked on. De-territorialization is therefore the process whereby labour-power is freed from a specific territory or mode of production. The opposite of de-territorialization, re-territorialization is the re-establishment of labour power into a specific geographical location or labour situation. The establishment of mill towns after the Inclosure Acts is an instance of the re-territorialization of “freed” labour force into new jobs (labourer) and geographical location (urban centres). Re-territorialization is therefore the capturing, labelling and enclosing of space (geographical location) or identity (from agricultural worker to labourer).

This process of de- and re-territorialization can be located in film noir’s representation of women and the historical context it both reflects and engages with. During WWII American women were actively encouraged to enter the work force. Krutrik explains ‘one of the consequences of the wartime expansion of the national economy was that women were overtly encouraged, as part of their ‘patriotic’ duty, to enter the workforce’.1 This was engendered by the de-territorialization of women from their traditional role as home-maker. Women were effectively freed from the traditional location they were expected to reside (the home) and allowed freedom to choose which sphere – domestic or work – in which to use their labour. Due to the war the domestic sphere was briefly de-territorialized as the natural sphere in which women resided. However, this freedom did not last because within a capitalist society de-territorialization is always met with a subsequent re-territorialization.2 Once an Allied victory was seen as a likely prospect female labour began to be seen as problematic.3 Michael Renov notes that:

by 1944, the internal memoranda of government agencies show that female work force was being termed ‘excess labour’ and efforts were being made to induce voluntary withdrawal, an attitude even then being transmitted from the editorials of major newspapers, magazines and through other public opinion forums.4

This inducement of “voluntary” withdrawal from the labour market was facilitated through pressure from factory managers and the culture industry (newspapers, magazines, films). By the end of the war these passive inducements gave way to aggressive discrimination and wholesale redundancy.5 In 1946 Frederick C Crawford, chairman of the National Association of Manufacturers, asserted ‘From a humanitarian point of view, too many women should not stay in the labour force. The home is the basic American unit’.6 Crawford’s assertion illustrates the change in attitude to women’s labour. During WWII a woman was doing her patriotic duty by joining the labour force. After WWII it was her patriotic duty to return to motherhood and domesticity. During the conclusion of WWII women were therefore re-territorialized, re-rooted as being “naturally” located in the domestic space.

Film noir reflects and engages in this re-territorializing process in its repressive narratives and character archetypes. This reflection is both direct and oblique. A direct reflection of re-territorialization is a film which attempts to deal with the issue or problem clearly in the film’s narrative. Mildred Pierce is one such example of a film which directly reflects the re-territorization of women. Pam Cook notes that Mildred Pierce articulates ‘the historical need to re-construct an economy based on a division of labour by which men command the means of production and women remain within the family’.7 In Mildred Pierce the central female figure Mildred Pierce divorces her husband, builds a successful career and business. However, this success comes at the price of her two daughters (one dies naturally and the other is imprisoned). The film’s resolution then features Mildred returning to her first husband and ultimately being re-installed into her “natural” space; the domestic sphere. Mildred Pierce is therefore a simple reflection of the re-territorialization process of naturalizing and re-installing women as belonging to the domestic sphere. Though some films are direct reflections of this process of re-territorialization most film noirs are oblique reflections. An oblique reflection is a disavowal or a dislocated reflection of a determining social context. In psychoanalysis, a disavowal is a denial accompanied with a simultaneous acknowledgement. This conception of disavowal can be used to illustrate how texts can both acknowledge a problem and attempt to deny its existence. The science fiction genre can be cited as a prime example of this process of simultaneous acknowledgement and denial. Rollerball’s (Dir. Norman Jewison, 1975) narrative reflects contemporary concerns about increased violence in television and sports. It does this however, by situating the narrative in a futuristic, fascistic society. Rollerball therefore reflects contemporary concerns regarding violence while simultaneously denying the problem a place in contemporary America. This process of disavowal can also be located in film noir’s representation of women. The Big Sleep is an example of a film which does not directly reflect the process of de- and re-territorialization that women encountered during and after WWII. The Big Sleep features two financially secure female characters (Carmen and Vivian) that require containment by the male protagonist. Carmen and Vivian are daughters of General Sternwood. The figure of General Sternwood stands for paternalistic capitalist society which requires financially and sexually independent women to be contained within appropriate institutions. Therefore The Big Sleep attempts not to acknowledge the issue of de- and re-territorialization but, through the film’s characterisation and narrative resolution, it obliquely reflects and is determined by the concerns of capitalist society regarding the increased independence of women – financial or otherwise.

1 Krutnik, In A Lonely Street, p. 57.

2 As D&G assert ‘The more the capitalist machine deterritorializes, decoding and axiomatizing flows in order to extract surplus value from them, the more its ancillary apparatuses, such as government bureaucracies and the forces of law and order, do their utmost to reterritorialize’. After capitalism de-territorializes it always simultaneously utilizes its institutions to re-territorialize that which was freed. D&G, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, p. 37.

3 Krutnik, In A Lonely Street, p. 59.

4 Michael Renov quoted from Krutnik, In A Lonely Street, p. 59.

5 Marjorie Rosen, Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies and the American Dream, (New York: Avon Books, 1974), p. 223.

6Fredick C Crawford quoted from Rosen, Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies and the American Dream, p. 216.

7Pam Cook, ‘Duplicity in Mildred Pierce‘, in E Ann Kaplan (ed), Women in Film Noir, (London: BFI Publishing, 1980), pp 68-82, p. 68.

Women in Film Noir II – The Importance of the Hays Code

Continuing from my previous article concerning the representation of women in film noir in this article i will set out an analysis of that depiction utilizing Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of capitalism and the desiring machine. As i noted in the previous article Hollywood inscribes the two central female figures as examples of appropriate and inappropriate desire. The destroyer is an example of desire without limits. The redeemer is conversely an example of desire within the (acceptable) limits. The articulation of the limits of desire can be seen as a prime function of the Hollywood desiring-machine. A desiring-machine is a social body which produces, codes and articulates desire. Desiring-machines also install identities by articulating how, why, when and what those subjects will desire. Deleuze and Guattari explain ‘The prime function incumbent upon the socius1, has always been to codify the flows of desire, to inscribe them, to record them, to see to it that no flow exists that is not properly damned up, channeled, regulated’.2 Therefore the production of archetypes is integral to the process of the desiring-machine because it allows a social body to articulate the acceptable limits of desire. This need to regulate the construction and representation of desire is further facilitated by Hollywood’s use of repressive structures such as the Hays Code. The Hays Code, named after its principle author Will H Hays, written in 1930 and adopted in 1934, stipulated what Hollywood films could and couldn’t show. The main intention behind the code was the reaffirmation of traditional moral ‘standards of life’.3 Molly Haskell explains:

In its support of the holy institution of matrimony, the [Hays] code was trying to keep the family together and (theoretically) protect the American female from the footloose American males who would obviously flee at the first opportunity, unless he was bound by the chains of the sacrament, which Hollywood took upon itself to keep polished and shining.4

As Haskell notes, one of the central aspects of the Hays Code was the attempt to ensure that institutions such as marriage weren’t disparaged or insulted. The code achieved this by explicitly requiring films not to ‘infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing’.5 Any character who transgresses these traditional sexual and social norms is structurally required by the Hays Code to be punished and repressed in the film’s resolution. Carmen, in The Big Sleep, is an example of this censorship. The consequence of Carmen’s inappropriate sexuality and promiscuity is her institutionalization. As well as being placed in a mental institution, Carmen is removed from the film’s denouement completely. Carmen is not permitted by the Hays Code to have a positive resolution; Carmen’s ending is complete censorship. The Hays Code is therefore an integral element in the construction of film noir narratives because it informs how transgressive behaviour has to be dealt with.

1 The socius is a social body or organism.

2 Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, (London: Continuum, 2008), p. 37.

3 Will H Hays, ‘The Motion Picture Production Code’, in Richard Maltby, Hollywood Cinema, Second Edition, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), pp. 593-597, p. 593.

4 Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape, (London: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 21.

5 W H Hays, ‘The Motion Picture Production Code’, p. 595.

An Exploration of Deleuze and Guattari’s Concept of the Rhizome

The rhizome is a philosophical concept advanced by Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. A rhizome is a form of plant-life which spreads, such as mushroom or crabgrass, without a central root, spot of origination or logical pattern. This symbol of rootlessness is used by Deleuze and Guattari because it opposes the traditional, rational and logical approach to knowledge. Often the traditional (logical) approach to knowledge is represented as growing from roots – like a tree does.[1]Deleuze and Guattari explain that the rhizome ‘has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle (milieu) from which it grows and which it overspills’.[2] The rhizome is a ‘self-vibrating region of intensities whose development avoids any orientation toward a culmination point or external end’.[3]The rhizome ‘brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states’.[4] As a concept the rhizome is a rejection of traditional genealogy. It is the interplay between rival sign systems in the production of new ‘variation[s], expansion[s], conquest[s], [and] offshoots’.[5]The rhizome is a rejection of the assumptions and history of the dominant class. Deleuze and Guattari argue that this minor-oriented – rather than dominant-oriented – philosophical approach is achieved by ‘surveying, mapping’ those lost or dominated cultures, classes, sexes and races.[6] However, the rhizome isn’t an anthropological study of culture, but rather a living organic continuous effort to free the forces that have been constrained – and in relation to literature, a challenge to the assumed literary canon.  Tony  Harrison’s poetry could be argued to survey and maps this effect  while simultaneously challenging the literary establishment, mixing the form of poetry with the voice of the working-class.


In the poem ‘Them & [uz]’ Harrison recalls the attitude his teachers had to his accent. The teacher tells Harrison ‘Can’t have our glorious heritage done to death/… We say [Λs] not [uz], T. W.!’.[7] Consigned to the Drunken Porter role in Macbeth the teacher explains ‘Poetry’s the speech of kings. You’re one of those/ Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: Prose!’.[8] Harrison’s accent relegates him to the comic role. In reaction to being told that his accent relegates him to prose and comic roles, Harrison writes ‘So right, yer buggers, then! We’ll occupy/ your lousy leasehold Poetry/… I’m Tony Harrison no longer you!’.[9]Leasehold is a form of property ownership which is temporary: the institution of school only has a tentative grip on poetry – it is as much Harrisons as it is the teachers. As Harrison notes ‘Wordsworth’s matter/water are full rhymes’.[10] The Oxford-English pronouncement of poetry is only one variation: Oxford-English is as much a socio-economic variation of speech as is Yorkshire-English. Harrison also highlights Wordsworth’s northern accent, something lost in the school’s canonization of poetry. Harrison’s poetry exposes the “white-washing” of dialect and literature’s history by the centralized institution of school. As Rosemary Burton notes:


Harrison fraternised with the enemy, schooled himself in the use of their armoury and, equipped with an education, several languages, and a hard-earned facility for the composition of verse, he plotted revenge on his teachers and the class system which had made his parents and people like them feel inadequate.[11]


Formal education, poetry, the arts have not often been tools accessible to the working-class but the scholarship boy offers a link between the two worlds. Harrison occupies poetry, utilizing his formal education to expose the destructive element of education, to survey, map the feelings, trials and life of the educated and not-so educated working-class.


The use of the sonnet is important in Harrison’s assault on the assumptions of the Oxford-English institutions. As Ken Worpole notes, the sonnet ‘is a literary form derived from the importance of the voice’ and the rhythm of speech.[12]In his sonnets Harrison has combined the traditional literary form with his accent to produce a radical critique of education and class. This ability to write and speak is important, as Harrison notes in ‘National Trust’ ‘The dumb go down in history and disappear/… the tongueless man gets his land took.’.[13]It is vital to the continued survival of minor communities that they retain their ability to speak, and speak in their own language and with their own accent. Harrison’s use of poetry to undermine Oxford-English is rhizomic thinking in its very essence. By combining the sonnet – a symbol of education – with his northern accent and turns of phrase Harrison undermines the centralized, dominant accent of Oxford-English. Harrison combines the canonical literary form of the sonnet with the speech and accent of his minority culture. This rhizomic, nomadic thinking undercuts and undermines the rooted validity and assumed superiority of Oxford-English. Harrison’s accent is a tool of poetry and poetry a tool of expression of his class-origins. At the end of the poem ‘V’ Harrison explains that if the reader wishes to understand his poetry they should read the epitaph planned:


Beneath your feet’s a poet, then a pit

 Poetry supporter, if you’re here to find how poems can grow from (beat you to it!) SHIT

 find the beef, the beer, the bread, then look behind…[14]


To understand the working-class poet, or working class, one has to locate the community and their occupations – and still look further. The working-class are defined by their work – even though at times employment has been scarce – but they are not solely defined by their employment. To understand Harrison’s poetry, and the effect of education of people similar to him, one must look at the communities he grew up in and the culture that fostered him. This can only be achieved by the existence of minor-literature – such as Harrison’s poetry. As the minor-poet Fred Hurst wrote, in full Yorkshire dialect:


Mills cloised, pits cloised, weer wo t’ jobs ta be fahnd?

Aht o’ t’ industrial muck an’ sweeaht, dialect is seen ta remain,

Nah t’ Minister states, “From usin’ dialect we must refrain.”

‘Victorian businesses built fortunes on ahr Faathers’ back,

Keep talkin’ dialect, we must nivver loise t’ knack.’.[15]


Education is a poisoned chalice for the working class but it offers the space, and the tools, with which to “nivver loise t’ knack” of conversing, mapping and expanding their dialect, their own minor-history. Harrison’s poetry is a perfect example of rhizomic art.


[1]    An indicator of this is Saussure’s utilization of the sign of tree in his explanation of his structural linguistic system.

[2]    Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, ‘Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’, in Leitch, Cain, Finke et al (ed), The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, London: W W Norton & Company Inc, (2001), pp. 1601-1609, p. 1605.

[3]    Deleuze and Guattari, pp. 1605-1606.

[4]    Deleuze and Guattari, p. 1605.

[5]    Deleuze and Guattari, p. 1605.

[6]    Deleuze and Guattari, p. 1603

[7]    Tony Harrison, ‘Them & [uz]’, in Tony Harrison Selected Poems (second edition), London: Penguin Books, (1987), pp. 1220123, p. 122.

[8]    Harrison, ‘Them & [uz]’, p. 122.

[9]    Harrison, ‘Them & [uz]’, p. 123.

[10]  Harrison, ‘Them & [uz]’, p. 123.

[11]  Rosemary Burton, ‘Tony Harrison: An Introduction’, in Neil Astley (ed), Tony Harrison, Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books Ltd, (1991), pp. 14-31, p. 18.

[12]  Worpole, ‘Scholarship Boy’, p. 69.

[13]  Tony Harrison, ‘National Trust’, in Tony Harrison: Selected Poems (second edition), London: Penguin Books, (1987), p. 121, p. 121.

[14]  Tony Harrison, ‘V’, in Tony Harrison Selected Poems (second edition), London: Penguin Books, (1987), pp. 239-249, p. 249.

[15]  Fred Hirst, ‘Wahrk An’ Words’, Poetry of Fred Hirst, [Accessed  31st May 2009] http://www.yorkshire-dialect.org/authors/fred_hirst_u_z.htm#wot_abaht_termorrer