Thursday, 5 July 2012

Dangerous Women Under Analysis: Celluloid Sirens

This post carries on the theme of dangerous women in visual culture from the previous post on fin-de-siècle 19th century art, to the continuation of the character of the vamp and the femme-fatale in early silent cinema of the 20th century. Here the figure of the femme-fatale is understood and analysed by twentieth century writers under a framework of psychoanalysis not in existence during the periods the Pre-Raphaelites and Symbolists were working. In order to examine and understand these later interpretations of the figure of the dangerous women, I will examine the way she was theorised by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

Freud evokes the image of Medusa, the epitome of the dangerous woman, in order firstly to describe what about her deadly physiognomy it is that threatens and the ways in which that very aspect causes both delight and disgust that again links sex and death, and secondly the way visible female sexuality threatens the male ego; fearing a loss of self during intercourse, he is interpolated into the anxious “castration complex”, that literally robs him of the phallus – the symbol of his superior maleness. "The sight of Medusa's head makes the spectator stiff with terror, turns him to stone. Observe that we have once again the same origin from the castration complex and the same transformation of effect! For becoming stiff means an erection. Thus in the original situation it offers consolation to the spectator: he is still in possession of a penis, and the stiffening reassures him of the effect....[S]he displays the terrifying genitals of the Mother. Since the Greeks were in the main strongly homosexual, it was inevitable that we should find among them a representation of women as a being who frightens and repels because she is castrated"

Freud's complicit bolstering of Ancient Greece's misogynistic attitudes was later taken to task by the second wave of feminists in the 1970's. Written in 1975, Hélène Cixous's The Laugh of the Medusa attempts to transform the misogynistic presentation of the dangerous, ugly, fearful Medusa that lacks what the male possesses into something powerfully feminine and fecund. Cixous throws back Freud's hypothesis of women as the “dark continent” in order to encourage women to misbehave by resisting silent obedience; in short to become "dangerous women". To give a truer survey of the most poignant, popular and interesting images of dangerous women in the visual cultures of the 19th and 20th century I felt I could not overlook cinema as the advent of the moving image was one of the twentieth century's largest innovations and something that radically and irrevocably changed our ideas of art, spectatorship, entertainment and culture.

Reading about "dangerous women" in early cinema I came across Bram Dijkstra's second book Evil Sisters, The Threat of Female Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Culture as he discusses the perhaps first film incarnation of the vampire: devouring/desiring dangerous woman Theda Bara, who played the “vamp” from Frank Powell's 1915 film A Fool There Was. Talking in Evil Sisters about film and the pleasures of identification it can offer the viewer, Dijkstra readdresses the issue of a recognition of the dangerous women as possessing some positive qualities. He comments, "from the vantage point of many of today's twice-marginalised women, the sexual woman of the early years of this century becomes a particularly appealing figure, whose emotional independence from men, sexual confidence, pleasure in the seductive authority of her body, and “masculine” economic depredations gave her a centrality in that period's cultural imagination of which today's manufactured “sex symbols” can only dream...But in fact she was, even then, the negative, mirror images of the dreams and mastery of the imperialist male. She was the nightmare inversion of his social sense of self, and though she appeared other, she remained, and still remains, a construct of the male imagination"

Theda Bara's role in A Fool There Was was known only as the “Vamp” - a shortening of "vampire" which led to the term "vamp" (to vamp: to be sexually provocative, etc.) as we know it today. Bara's physical appearance is extremely reminiscent of the images of women in Symbolist and Pre-Raphaelite art, long flowing snake-like tendrils draped over herself and the man who has fallen victim to her seduction. Not much has changed therefore in the representation of the dangerous sexually active women from the fin-de-siècle to the early 1910's: both equate female sexuality with threatening deprivation.

Although Bara's Vamp is powerful and achieves her ends, it is at the cost of using her body as a commodity of exchange: she remain unequal to men, and cannot be read as a progressive positive example of the dangerous women. The pleasures of Bara's “vamp” work in much the same way as in paintings of Greek mythical femmes-fatales: the suspension of normal rules of society permit a guilt-free desire to look at and imagine the forbidden, while the seductive power of these female figures absolves men of responsibility: as helpless victims, they retain their superior moral status.

The silent films of the cinema's early period were heavily influenced by German Expressionism and the black and white film stock enhanced their atmospheric chiaroscuro landscapes of shadows. This is epitomised by Robert Wiene's 1920's film Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. During this period the silent screens were full of horrifying vampish characters, I have come across endless black-eyed femmes-fatales while looking at cinematic vamps - among these are Theda Bara,  Betty Amann, Lillian Gish, Pola Negri, Mary Pickford then later, Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner, all beautiful sexual predators that threaten the downfall of men/society.

During the 1990's feminist film theorists have looked back to the silent period to analyse the tropes of femmes-fatales and representations of women. Many of these works have been inspired by Laura Mulvey's use of Freudian psychoanalytic frameworks to negotiate the power-relations of looking and spectatorship: her thesis is that the holder of the gaze subjugates that which is held under the gaze. In looking at the Classical Hollywood period of cinema history, Mulvey suggest that the apparatus of film spectatorship is positioned for the male visual pleasure of objectifying the female image on screen. Other film theorists have followed Mulvey's use of reading film through psychoanalysis. This includes, Molly Haskell, Mary Anne Doane, Barbara Creed, Teresa De Lauretis, E. Ann Kaplan and Christian Metz, among many others.

Due to its themes of death, violence and sex the horror film seems particularly apt for such reading, as what horrifies us is deeply rooted in our personal psychology and in the greater cultural (un)consciousness. Explaining how the dangerous women functions in the horror film, and what they reveal about cultural fears about female sexuality, Barbara Creed comments: "The myths about woman as castrator clearly points to male fears and phantasies about the female genitals as a trap, a black hole which threatens to swallow them up and cut them to pieces...The vagina dentata is particularly relevant to the iconography of the horror film, which abounds with images of that play on the fear of castration and dismemberment".

From the Ancient Myths, down to 19th century painting to film stars of the 20th century, the image of the metaphorically castrating beautiful and deadly woman seems unwaveringly popular. Slightly later than Bara's Vamp, the figure of Pandora is materialised on screen by Louise Brooks in Pandora's Box (1929). Like Pandora of Ancient myth, the flapper Lulu is naïve about the wickedness of her curiosities, that lead to the destruction and death of many of the film's characters. Her deadliness is no less powerful than Theda Bara's Vamp, yet Lulu also possesses an innocence that melds the virgin-whore dichotomy of western cultures' depictions of women's roles.

Filmed in 1920's Weimar Berlin, Pandora's Box mirrors the decadent lifestyles of the time: the public pleasure of drinking, the social life of the city and sexual excess. Pandora/Lulu is in some ways a progressive character as she is linked to bisexuality and independence as she earns her own money etc. But these are “evils” that consume: her relationship with a woman leads to the woman's downfall, as well as the countless men who also fall for her. Although she is a prostitute, she “has a heart” and herself falls in love with her punters, thus becoming a victim of her own sexuality. Angela Carter in her journalistic writing has written on the femme-fatale and Pandora's Box; she says of the film and of Louise Brooks as the character Pandora/Lulu: "Time and permissiveness has dimmed neither the medium nor the message one whit. Brooks' face and presence remain unique; God knows, one would think she was quite enough woman as she is, but nobody, of course, can leave her alone for one moment. Desire does not so much transcend its object as ignore it completely in favour of a fantastic recreation of it. Which is the process by which the femme gets credited with fatality. Because she is perceived not as herself but as the project of those libidinous cravings which, since they are forbidden, must always prove fatal".

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