Summary of Discussion on The Stepford Wives

Frances has very kindly provided the following summary of our discussion on The Stepford Wives:

During our discussion kidman stepford wiveson The Stepford Wives it was noted how different the 1975 version is to its 2004 remake, particularly in regards to the latter’s ‘happy ending’. It was remarked that this remake completely removes the social commentary of the original which, whilst depressing, is absolutely necessary and crucial to understanding the film’s political contexts and its relevance to the Gothic. Indeed, it was noted that Forbes’s The Stepford Wives continues to be a powerful film precisely because many of issues it raises – especially in respect to society’s views on women – are unfortunately still relevant today and visible in contemporary culture.

SW_JoannaWe also discussed Joanna as a Gothic heroine and, despite her resourcefulness and defiance against the forces of the Men’s Association early on in the film, it is strange that she does not attempt to fight against Diz and his murderous plans during the film’s climatic, penultimate scene. This may have been, in part, because Joanna runs through the old, dark house unarmed (having lost the fire poker to Diz at the beginning of the sequence), which led to the observation that Joanna – rather unusually – explores this space empty-handed. A common trait we have observed in other Gothic films is how the heroine usually explores the dark and (potentially) dangerous space of the Gothic house with a light source, such as the candelabra in The Innocents (1961) or torch in Secret Beyond the Door (1947). Such scenes are emblematic of the Gothic heroine’s exploratory nature, and the extreme use of light and shadow of these moments speak to the larger thematic concerns of the narrative which usually involves the exposing of previously hidden or repressed secrets.

Joanna’s interaction with the house is markedly different in this respect and it was suggested that Diz’s presence in the scene could be the disruptive factor: the Gothic heroine usually explores the domestic space alone or, at the very least, the threat of a male is normally provided by the story’s husband or love interest. The Stepford Wives is different on both these counts and this could represent another way the film adapts and modifies the traditions of the Gothic in order to speak to the film’s wider political contexts and concerns. In this reading Diz is not just a substitute for the heroine’s suspicious spouse but rather an embodiment of patriarchy itself. This is reinforced by Diz’s lead role in the Men’s Association which is the dominant organisation controlling the town and ensuring male privilege and advantage. In this way, it is entirely apt that Joanna’s interaction with the house – which ultimately leads to her demise – is depicted in this way. If The Stepford Wives functions allegorically as a comment upon the destructive nature of patriarchal control, then any attempt on Joanna’s behalf to resist Diz’s manipulation is therefore futile: the house, like Stepford and society more broadly, are already shaped and controlled by Diz and what he stands for. This socio-politicalSW_automaton reading is reinforced again by Joanna’s traumatic discovery of her double at the end of the sequence. The sight of Joanna’s submissive doppelganger as she sits within a mock bedroom functions as another personification of women’s domestic and sexual enslavement.

SW_ gazeInterestingly, the film explores these themes of oppression and objectification on an aesthetic level too. Joanna’s job as a photographer complements her role as the inquisitive Gothic heroine although the agency Joanna enjoys through her control of the lens (along with her investigative abilities) is always compromised. Significantly, Joanna is not a successful photographer and the only pictures which garner critical interest are of domestic, family scenes. Instead The Stepford Wives emphasises how Joanna fails to look both in her capacity as a photographer, and metaphorically in her ability to see the truth about Stepford’s community. The point-of-view shots used to depict Joanna’s picture taking become ironic: Joanna’s control over these images (and, by extension, over what the viewer sees) is illusionary and transitory, and Joanna herself will quite literally be replaced by a body that has been made to fulfil an image which adheres to the standards set by the men’s desires. The moment Joanna discovers her automaton replacement reflects this usurpation of Joanna’s agency and her ability to look. When Joanna first enters the mock bedroom, her gaze is represented by a point-of-view shot which pans from left to right, scanning the room. Notably, this is the last time we see events strictly from Joanna’s perspective. Joanna’s discovery of the robot is depicted first through a close-up on Joanna’s face for a reaction shot, and then another pan (with accompanying aural cues) reveal the source of her horrified response. Joanna loses agency of the image at the moment when she comprehends Stepford’s sinister secret and will ultimately lose her life. Indeed, subsequent edits in the shot-reverse shots between Joanna and the android emphasise this connection between the film’s larger themes and its stylistic choices further: an edit frames a close-up on the double’s synthetic breasts, visible beneath the see-through negligee it wears. The camera’s voyeurism aptly reflects the triumph of the Men’s Association in objectifying the women of Stepford and controlling their bodies. This point is underlined by the haunting image of synthetic Joanna’s lifeless gaze, isolated in an extreme close-up, which looks out at the audience in the film’s final shot.

Thanks for such a great summary, Frances!

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Call For Papers: Gothic Feminism Symposium at the University of Kent, Thursday 26th-Friday 27th of May

Exciting News! Melodrama Research Group members Frances and Tamar are organising a symposium entitled: Gothic Feminism: The Representation of the Gothic Heroine in Cinema. This builds on our Gothic focus over the last 6 months and seems especially apt given our most recent screening of The Stepford Wives (1975). The symposium will take place at the University of Kent Canterbury campus from Thursday 26th to Friday 27th of May. Our confirmed keynote is Catherine Spooner of Lancaster University: http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/english-and-creative-writing/about-us/people/catherine-spooner

 

Gothic blog untitled

 

 

Gothic Feminism:

The Representation of the Gothic Heroine in Cinema

University of Kent

Thursday 26th – Friday 27th May 2016

Confirmed Keynote: Catherine Spooner, Lancaster University

 

CALL FOR PAPERS

Since its literary beginnings, the Gothic has featured distinctive female characters who engage with, and are often central to, the uncanny narratives characteristic of the genre. The eponymous ‘Gothic heroine’ conjures up images of the imperilled young and inexperienced woman, cautiously exploring the old dark house or castle where she is physically confined by force – imprisoned by the tale’s tyrant – or metaphorically trapped by societal expectations of marriage and domesticity. The Gothic heroine is habitually motivated by an investigative spirit and usually explores her surroundings in a quest to uncover a sinister secret which will, for example, reveal her love interest’s past or provide explanation for her supposedly supernatural encounters.

The importance of the Gothic’s women protagonists is not limited to these narrative functions but extends to considerations of the genre itself; the Gothic can be defined by its portrayal of the heroine. Ellen Moers’ work on female literary traditions is a key text in this respect, identifying the ‘Female Gothic’ as a distinctive mode within the genre. The ‘Female Gothic’ highlights the prevalence of female writers exploring the Gothic mode and the implied woman reader engaging with the heroine’s exploits. Moers writes that ‘Female Gothic’ texts – such as those by Ann Radcliffe – convey a specific form of ‘heroinism’ which evokes the idea of a ‘literary feminism’.

Moers’ work demonstrates how the Gothic and the Gothic heroine intersect with feminist criticism because, as Helen Hanson notes, ‘the female gothic bears a political charge’ (Hanson, 2007, 63). This ‘political charge’ is equally applicable to the Gothic film and its representation of the heroine. In cinema, the Gothic enjoyed particular attention with the 1940s cycle of melodrama and noir films which emphasised the Gothic traits of the old dark house, mystery and domestic threat, with the Gothic heroine’s exploits central throughout. Films such as Rebecca (1940), Gaslight (1940/1944) and Secret Beyond the Door (1947) are exemplary of this trend. Several writers have explored the political and feminist ramifications of these films which have been seen as Gothic or, as Mary Ann Doane writes, ‘paranoid woman’s films’ (Doane, 1987). The reception and interpretation of these films is inextricably linked to societal contexts in which these films were made, as Diane Waldman notes how the war and immediate post-war period offer distinct visions – and varying degrees of validation – of the heroine’s feminine perspective.

This symposium seeks to re-engage with these theories and reflect specifically upon the depiction of the Gothic heroine in film. Since the release of Rebecca over 75 years ago, has our evaluation of the Gothic heroine necessarily changed? How does the Gothic heroine relate to its literary predecessors? Can one speak of a cinematic Gothic heroine, distinct and separate from the original Gothic literature? Victoria Nelson notes that, in film history, ‘[in] a relatively short span of time, the perennial swooning damsel in distress had turned into a millennial female jock’ (Nelson, 2013, 136). How have the Gothic heroines of the screen evolved and is it possible to trace this specific lineage in contemporary representations? Whether the Gothic heroine be a ‘damsel’ or a ‘jock’, this inevitably raises the question of interpretation: how should the Gothic heroine be evaluated and can such a representation be thought of as ‘feminist’?

This symposium will engage with these questions of representation, interpretation and feminist enquiry in relation to the Gothic heroine throughout film history including present day incarnations, with films such as Crimson Peak (2015) directly re-engaging with the Gothic genre. This event seeks to wrestle with the difficulties posed by the Gothic as a mode which emphasises terror, the uncanny and suspense, alongside representations of women protagonists who given agency as investigators motivating narrative development but are subjected to horror for the story’s pleasure. These difficulties are not new to the Gothic genre. As Fred Botting notes: ‘Women’s gothic, it seems, straddles contradiction and challenge, persecution and pleasure’ (Botting, 2008, 153). Similarly, David Punter and Glennis Byron write that ‘[whether] female Gothic should be seen as radical or conservative has been an issue of particular concern’ (Punter and Bryon, 2004, 280). This symposium will illuminate the concerns, contradictions and challenged posed by the Gothic heroine on-screen through reference to specific case studies which re-engage with older examples of the Gothic and/or explore contemporary films, reflecting upon the renewed academic and commercial interest in the genre of recent years.

Topics can include but are not limited to:

  • How interpretations of the Gothic heroine relates to large feminist criticisms. Can Gothic film be said to be ‘progressive’? Is the Gothic heroine always defined in relation to a patriarchy?
  • In light of Moers’ work, can one speak of ‘heroinism’ and a ‘cinematic feminism’ to Gothic film?
  • Historical explorations of the Gothic heroine in cinema. How has representations of the heroine changed and how does this relate to larger social and political contextual concerns?
  • Contemporary incarnations of the Gothic heroine.
  • Comparisons between the cinematic Gothic heroine and the genre’s literary beginnings.
  • On-screen adaptations of Gothic literary texts.
  • How does the Gothic heroine compare to other distinctive representations of female protagonists in genres such as melodrama and horror? Is the Gothic heroine a distinct and separate entity apart from other genres, or is she inextricably linked to them?
  • Can one speak of a separate Gothic heroine tradition in cinema?
  • The reception of Gothic film and Gothic heroine audiences.
  • The relationship between the heroine and space, particularly domestic spaces such as the house. How does architecture relate to the representation of the Gothic heroine?
  • The significance of costume and fashion to the Gothic heroine’s identity.
  • Comparisons between the Gothic heroine and other protagonists, such as the archetypal ‘other woman’ or male lead. How, for example, is the concept of ‘Gothic feminism’ affected by the genre’s representation of masculinity/masculinities?
  • The Gothic heroine as virgin or mother figure.

Please submit proposals of 500 words, along with a short biographical note (250 words) to gothicfeminism2016@gmail.com by 18th March 2016.

Frances Kamm and Tamar Jeffers McDonald, University of Kent.

References

Botting, Fred. (2008). Gothic Romanced: Consumption, Gender and Technology in Contemporary Fictions. Oxford: Routledge.

Doane, Mary Ann. (1987). The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hanson, Helen. (2007). Hollywood Heroines: Women in Film Noir and the Female Gothic Film. London and New York: I. B. Tauris.

Moers, Ellen. (1976). Literary Women. New York: Doubleday and Co.

Nelson, Victoria. (2013). ‘Daughters of Darkness’. In: Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film. London: BFI.

Punter, David. and Byron, Glennis. (2004). The Gothic. Oxford: Blackwell.

Waldman, Diane. (1983). ‘”At last I can tell it to someone!” Feminine point of view and Subjectivity in the Gothic Romance Film of the 1940s’, Cinema Journal 23: 29-40.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 22nd of February, 5-7pm, Jarman 7

All are very welcome to join us for the third  of this term’s Screening and Discussion sessions, which will take place on Monday the 22nd of February, 5-7pm, in Jarman 7.

We will be showing Frances’ choice The Stepford Wives (1975, Bryan Forbes, 115 mins). Frances has very kindly provided the following introduction:

The Stepford WivesBryan Forbes’s 1975 screen adaptation of The Stepford Wives may seem, at first, a long way away from the eerie shots of Manderley which open Rebecca (1940) or the exuberant period costume of Uncle Silas (1947), viewed during the last session. Indeed, The Stepford Wives opens in a modern New York apartment where our protagonist – Joanna – sits alone. Soon afterwards, Joanna and her family will be seen outside in the busy city and a man carrying a mannequin across the street captures Joanna’s eye as a keen photographer. The film’s beginning – with its emphasis on the bright, noisy and Joanna as photographermodern city, and Joanna’s role as a wife and mother as well as an inspiring professional photographer – appears to radically contrast the Gothic films discussed in previous weeks. Yet The Stepford Wives soon reveals how the tropes of the Gothic infuse this tale of horror set in a seemingly perfect suburban community. The film conveys the same Gothic anxieties of the menacing dark house, the suspicious husband and the investigative heroine whose well-being is very much jeopardized. The historical context into which The Stepford Wives was made and originally released supports these assertions: the film appears at the same time that Gothic fiction enjoyed a renewed interest, with Gothic novels – published in cheap paperback editions – were enormously popular, as beginning with Phyllis Whitney’s Thunder Heights in 1960.

However, the significance of The Stepford Wives resides not just within a contemporaneous interest in Gothic narratives, but also in how the film directly interrogates the socio-political context of the US in the 1970s using the Gothic mode. In 1963 Betty Friedan has published her influential The Feminine Mystique which explored the unhappiness of suburban housewives in the 1950s and 60s who struggled to find satisfaction from a life of domesticity and maternal duties. This is a central theme of The Stepford Wives: upon arrival Joanna is faced with beautiful women neighbours who are solely concerned with cleaning and cooking, whilst their husbands congregate for meetings of the ‘Stepford Men’s Association’. Joanna is unsettled by these occurrences and initially finds a kindred spirit in Bobbie who celebrates the sight of a messy kitchen. In this way, the rise of radical feminism in the 1960s and 70s in challenging gender stereotypes and traditional roles, and demanding legal and social change, should not just contextualise the viewer’s reading of the film, but clearly these progressive politics influenced the making of the film too. The politics of housework is explicitly mentioned in dialogue in the film, as is references to feminist movements, such as the women’s liberation movement in New York.

Anna Krugovoy Silver argues that it is precisely this political context which informs the film and its interaction with the Gothic tradition. Interestingly, Silver notes that Friedan did not like the film because it seemed to demonize all men in the active oppression of women (Silver, 2002). However Silver argues that The Stepford Wives does not simply parody feminist discourse, like Friedan’s, but rather the film seeks to interrogate the ideas being discussed by feminists at the time and force a spotlight on aspects which continued to be contentious issues for many women, such as marriage and housework. In this way, The Stepford Wives becomes an important ‘sociocultural document’ for 1970s America. Silver continues: ‘[The] Stepford Wives arose out of these feminist critiques of marriage, but rather than simply exploiting the feminist critique, as Friedan implies, the message of Forbes’s suburban gothic is consistent with that of many second wave feminists. His conclusions about the family are indebted to, and consequently reinforced, the popularization of feminist rhetoric and theory’ (2002).

The Gothic helps to illuminate the interactions between the film and its political messaging. For example, the threat from the male protagonist – which is often translated into the suspicious activities of the secretive husband in the 1940s Hollywood Gothics – now becomes the oppression of the murderous male community in The Stepford Wives. The role of the Gothic heroine in revealing secrets of the narratives as an active investigator becomes Joanna’s role in exposing male privilege and its The old dark housesubjugation of women. And the presence of the old, dark house becomes a symbol for where such inequality emerges and is resisted by 1970s feminists and Joanna alike. As Silver observes, the film emphasises how ‘the patriarchy begins in the home’ (Silver, 2002).

Elyce Rae Helford also writes how The Stepford Wives engages with the political context of its making and highlights how the film is a contemporary of Laura Mulvey’s famous essay on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’(Helford, 2006). The Stepford Wives helps to show how Mulvey’s work thus becomes another important historical document in the interaction between feminist movements and the creation of artworks, and in particular film. Helford’s comparison is interesting on another level too: The Stepford Wives appears to interrogate the idea of a male gaze, as the women in the film are – quite literally – formed in the shape deemed desirable to their husbands. This stands in tension with Joanna’s resistance against the Men’s Association and – on a metaphoric level – her role as a photographer and thus her control of the lens. This element of the film is of particular interest to the Melodrama Group’s wider discussion of representations of the Gothic heroine and the agency she has (or does not have) within the Gothic narrative. The Stepford Wives contributes to this conversation as the film presents the themes of looking, being watched and the female body as interwoven within the confines of a Gothic story which simultaneously speaks to the larger narrative of women’s rights and feminist movements of the 1970s.

 References

Helford, Elyce Rae. 2006. ‘The Stepford Wives and The Gaze.’ Feminist Media Studies, 6 (2), 145-156.

Silver, Anna Krugovoy. 2002. ‘The Cyborg Mystique: The Stepford Wives and Second Wave Feminism.’ Women’s Studies Quarterly. 3 (1/2): 60-77. Online at:  http://lion.chadwyck.co.uk.chain.kent.ac.uk/searchFulltext.do?id=R04239649&divLevel=0&area=abell&forward=critref_ft

 

Thanks Frances! And please note that due to the length of the film we will be starting promptly.

Summary of Discussion on Uncle Silas

We immediately noticed a markedGaslight UK difference between this UK production and the US gothic films we have recently screened. While Rebecca and Notorious were polished, Uncle Silas’ theatricality reminded us of the ‘blood and thunder’ present in the UK version of Gaslight. (See our previous discussion of the latter here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/04/05/summary-of-discussion-on-gaslight/)

Katina PaxinouIt was also noticeable that neither film really integrated its comedic aspects. In Gaslight much of the comedy was provided by Frank Pettingell’s slightly bumbling policeman. By contrast, Uncle Silas’ criminals – especially the French governess so vividly played by Katina Paxinou – were the main comedy figures. This undercut much of the potential suspense as nefarious plans were threatened by the criminals’ own incompetence.

Comedy was not restricted to the film’s criminals though, since the set piece of Kathryn’s Cousin Monica’s Christmas party poked fun at the upper classes. This was especially jarring as a key section centred on the difficulty of getting a message to Kathryn about her Uncle Silas’ illness. We might have expected this to provide some suspense. There was only confusion, however, with the communication difficulty resting on the fact party-goers were unable to spread messages without the help of their servants.

uncle silas avant gardeFurther confusion for the audience occurred in an extended sequence in which Kathryn was drugged and seemingly accompanied to Dover by her French governess. This too combined drama and comedy. The speed of the train travel well conveyed the high stakes of the situation, but the danger was dismissed by repeated instances of comedy. All the characters were suddenly jolted into action, spoke incessantly, and then fell asleep on at least two occasions. Some of the experimental avant-garde techniques used to convey Kathryn’s drugged state (fuzzy focus etc) were also incongruous when compared to the film as a whole.

kathrynThe heroine Kathryn also caused concern. Unlike the criminals she was not a comic figure. But her extreme naivety led to her displaying incompetence similar to that of the other characters. Although it was clear to the audience that her Uncle had a financial motive to want her dead, Kathryn refused to believe this of him. This was even the case after she accidently stumbled across the evidence of his attempts to forge her signature, which led to his subsequent violent relapse of illness. Kathryn was not a courageous spy like Alicia in Notorious, nor was she the quieter but still curious second Mrs de Winter of Rebecca. As a heroine we found her difficult to invest in. While this may be connected to an attempt to display the character’s British reserve, it became less than credible as the film progressed.

A point of similarity across UK (Uncle Silas) and US productions (e.g. Rebecca,Uncle silas house Notorious) was the presence of gothic houses. Uncle Silas began in the large mansion she shared with her father. The action, and Kathryn, soon moved to the dilapidated estate of her Uncle Silas. The distressed state of the latter’s abode was conveyed by direct contrast with another house – Cousin Monica’s provides the backdrop for a lavish Christmas party.

simmons dressThis comparison in the state of residences formed part of the reason for Kathryn’s visit to her cousin. While Kathryn was certainly at liberty to travel to her cousin’s (she had no suspicion of her Uncle’s intentions and was unlikely to pass on a message) the purpose of her visit within the narrative was unclear. It seemed to slow down the action. We also thought the reason might be linked to romance: the visit allowed her to renew acquaintance with a young man she was fond of. It also provided viewers with a sort of ‘makeover scene’ which frequently occurs in romantic films; Kathryn stood in front of a mirror wearing an old dress before twirling and magically donning a beautiful new one. This concern with romance also links the UK and US gothic films we have screened – and indeed to film more generally.

As ever, do log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.