Women in Film Noir V – Is Film Noir’s Representation of the Domestic Sphere Subversive?

In the previous four articles (can be accessed here: I, II, III, IV) I argued that Film Noir represents women as conforming to two central archetypes. These archetypes – the redeemer and the destroyer – are founded on a moral dichotomy between legitimate and illegitimate displays of desire. The redeemer exhibits legitimate desires and the destroyer displays excessive desires. I highlighted that this representation conforms to, and was informed by, the repressive structure of the Hays Code. I then noted that this representation can be located in two other Hollywood genres; the screwball comedy and melodrama. I cited Double Indemnity as an example of film noirs continuance of this tradition. As well as conforming to the structures and tradition of Hollywood (the Hays Code, screwball comedy and melodrama) I asserted that film noir’s representation of women is determined by its socio-historical context. I then concluded that the vast de- and re-territorialization of women during and after WWII can be seen as being reflected both directly and obliquely in Film Noir.

In this article, and following ones, I will further explore this claim. I will explore two counter-arguments which assert that film noir, although reflecting the dominant ideology in its narrative resolutions, is subversive. I will first explore the claim that the representation of the domestic sphere in film noir, rather than being repressive, suggests the beginnings of an attack on the institution of marriage. I will disagree and note that film noir represents the corrupt domestic sphere as being determined by the qualities of an individual human being rather than the contradictions inherent in the institution of marriage. I will therefore conclude that film noir’s representation of the domestic sphere does not constitute an attack on the institution of marriage. I will then explore the claim that the style of film noir subverts its own repressive structure. I will argue that the “powerful” moments of expression are not subversive but rather another standardized means of expressing and containing excessive ambition, lust and greed.

In contrast to my position that the narrative resolutions and characterization of Film Noir reaffirms the traditional conception of family and gender roles Sylvia Harvey argues that:

film noir offers us again and again examples of abnormal or monstrous behavior which defy the patterns established for human social interaction, and which hint at a series of radical and irresolvable contradictions buried deep within the total system of economic and social interactions that constitute the know world.[1]

Harvey agrees that Film Noir utilizes the destroyer figure as an example of illegitimate and immoral excess but asserts that this does not serve to reaffirm the status quo. Harvey asserts that the destroyer figure and the representation of the domestic sphere communicate irresolvable inconsistencies at the heart of the dominant ideology. Harvey states that ‘it is the representation of the institution of the family… in film noir [which] serves as the vehicle for the expression of frustration’.[2] To Harvey, film noir’s representation of the domestic sphere subverts the film’s repressive conclusions. Harvey goes on to assert ‘the kinds of tension characteristic of the portrayal of the family in these films suggest the beginnings of an attack on the dominant social values normally expressed through the representation of the family’.[3] Whereas I argued that film noir narrative structure and characterization reaffirmed the traditional conception of the family and domestic sphere, Harvey asserts that film noir subverts and attacks the institution of family. To Harvey this subversion and attack on the traditional institution of family is articulated through film noir’s visual style. This negative portrayal of the domestic sphere can be located in Double Indemnity. The Dietrichson home isn’t represented as flourishing or the site through which relationships thrive. When Walter Neff first walks into Phyllis Dietrichson’s living room he remarks on how stale the room smells. The music which accompanies Walter’s entrance into the living room is also dark and disharmonious. The feeling of discontent is further represented through the mise-en-scene. As Walter walks into the living room bars of light are projected across his body which appears to refer to prison uniform. The living room furniture is also stark and the darkness of the room, in contrast to the brightness of the exterior shots, further illustrates the sombre atmosphere in the Dietrichson household. Harvey further notes that the family unit is traditionally the arena in which romantic love is fostered but in Double Indemnity the domestic space only offers death.[4] To Harvey, Double Indemnity’s representation of the domestic sphere as a stale, disharmonious and ultimately deadly place constitutes a ‘violent assault on the conventional values of family life’.[5] Harvey goes on to assert that:

[The] terrible absence of family relations [in film noir] allows for the production of the seeds of counter-ideologies. [This] absence or disfigurement of the family… may be seen to encourage the consideration of alternative institutions for the reproduction of social life.[6]

Harvey believes that film noir both subverts the representation of the domestic sphere as well as facilitates the consideration of alternative non-repressive social institutions. Harvey concludes by asserting that ‘Despite the ritual punishment of acts of transgression, the vitality with which these acts are endowed produces an excess of meaning which cannot finally be contained’.[7] Harvey is therefore asserting that film noir’s repressive narrative resolutions cannot contain the subversive representation of the domestic sphere.[8]


[1]     Harvey, p. 22.

[2]     Harvey, p. 23.

[3]     Harvey, p. 23.

[4]     Harvey, p. 25.

[5]     Harvey, p. 31.

[6]     Harvey, p. 33.

[7]     Harvey, p. 33.

[8]     Harvey, p. 33.

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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.