Volume IV, Number 2, Fall 2008

"Violent Women on the Screen" review by Zsófia Anna Tóth

Zsófia Anna Tóth is a predoctoral research fellow at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. E-mail: tothzsof@lit.u-szeged.hu

Reel Knockouts, Violent Women in the Movies
Martha McCaughey and Neal King, eds.
Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.
279 pages, ISBN: 0-292-75251-2

According to Martha McCaughey (Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Director of Women’s Studies, Dept. of Interdisciplinary Studies, Living Learning Center, Appalachian State University) and Neal King (Associate Professor, Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, Virginia Tech), Reel Knockouts, Violent Women in the Movies “offers the first book-length treatment of violent women in the movies” (2), although, there have already been a couple of previous works discussing several of the subject matters addressed here. This volume, however, aims to approach the question of mean women (and McCaughey and King uses this very term to signify violent female characters, malicious villains or virtuous savers of the world, who fall “below the standards of human decency” (2) in the eyes of most people) on screen from a multitude of aspects and provides a wide variety of analyses and discussions about them. In this volume, feminist issues have a central place, as the essays examine to what extent violent women in movies represent and advocate given feminist causes, if they do at all. The essays set out not simply to investigate whether the discussed films “really” represent women as they or analyze some feminist issues that these contain, but rather aim to show how these films mirror the social contexts in which they were produced and, at the same time examining the way in which they can be used in the (re)construction of femininity.

In the introductory chapter of the book, entitled “What’s a Mean Woman like You Doing in a Movie like This?”, the editors present the main themes of the book, and briefly discuss academic controversies about “mean women,” (2) the mixed responses towards them, and the debates on whether violent women can be tools in the feminist struggle. (11, 1-24) The editors claim that whatever reactions to ignoble women on screen (or off) are, these responses are always powerful. In the final part of the introduction, McCaughey and King summarize the four main objections scholars have to women’s onscreen violence. These are the following: violent female characters are shown as 1.) too unrealistic, 2.) too sexy, 3.) too emotional, and 4.) too co-opted. (12-20)

By occasionally elaborating a slightly ironic tone – which makes the reading even more enjoyable – the editors argue that the book was created in the spirit of celebration rather than diminution (16). They intend to exclude moralizing tones and avoid the “good puppy” (feminist vision) (ibid.) – “bad doggy” (male fantasies) (16) judgments by finding special filmic narrative patterns and by discovering their reception rather than simply “bark at them.” The secondary aim of the editors with this volume is to enable readers to take violent women seriously by using the medium of the film as possible tools in the further liberation of women (20).

The book is divided into two parts, each part consisting of five chapters. “Part I: Genre Films” opens with Wendy Arons’s “’If Her Stunning Beauty Doesn’t Bring You to Your Knees, Her Deadly Drop Kick Will’: Violent Women in the Hong Kong Kung Fu Film.” Arons describes the Hong Kong kung fu genre and the role of women, especially that of violent ones in these types of movies. The author of this essay investigates the critical position of a US scholar, who has never been to Hong Kong but is aware of the “dangers” of cross-cultural analysis and works with these movies. Still, she claims that these kung fu films are targeted primarily at Western audiences, and thus, it is legitimate to examine what these violent women have to say, what they show and do. The analyzed films include Wing Chun (1994, directed by Woo-ping Yuen), Naked Killer (1992, directed by Clarence Fok Yiu-leung), Swordsman II (1992, directed by Siu-Tung Ching and Stanley Tong), The Heroic Trio (1993, directed by Johnny To); throughout the examination of these films, Arons reveals the underlying dynamism and rules of women’s representation in the various sub-genres of the kung fu movies. These films operate on different patterns, but the main underlying principle is the exploitation of the polarities between the unfeminine – extremely feminine character opposition which are embodied into two kinds of characters: the plain, undesirable, masculinized (although successful, independent and autonomous) woman fighter and the dimwitted, big-busted, beautiful (although dependent, incompetent and passive) woman, who is generally the love object of the hero, while the first character can only be a pal, a friend or a partner in “colleague sense.” In these movies there is a special focus on the female body and the woman as sex object. However, this is, occasionally “done” with self-mockery, and positive images of violent women are also to be found.

In the chapter “If Looks Could Kill: Power, Revenge, and Stripper Movies,” Jeffrey A. Brown argues that the narrative message of stripper-revenge movies is that “women exercise power over the men who look at them” (73). The author discusses the issue of striptease as a symbolic act of gender and power negotiation. While primarily building his argumentation around Laura Mulvey’s (debated) ideas about the gaze – which he does not question – Brown recognizes some problematic points in Mulvey’s approach and carries his argumentation to a point where he deconstructs it by (seemingly unintentionally) finding its inconsistencies through his case studies. The final point is that stripper-revenge movies, which are “cousins of rape-revenge films” (56, 58), and, as such, can be possible modes of female empowerment.

In the next chapter, “The Gun and the Badge: Hollywood and the Female Lawman,” Carol M. Dole writes about the representation of women in cop films, where violent women are attributed with the complex combination of physical, moral, and institutional power. By analyzing Blue Steel (1990, directed by Kathryn Bigelow), The Silence of the Lambs (1991, directed by Jonathan Demme), Copycat (1995, directed by Jon Amiel), Fargo (1996, directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen), Long Kiss Goodnight (1996, directed by Renny Harlin) and Out of Sight (1998, directed by Steven Soderbergh), Dole traces and examines the patterns together with the representation and positioning of female cops by focusing on the balance, or lack thereof, between the masculine and/or feminine traits of these characters. The author suggests that audiences generally seem to favor female heroes who are not overtly violent while both critics and audiences “prefer” the ones that are credited with resourcefulness and courage much more than with physical dominance. However, the most important aspect of these films, Dole writes, is that Hollywood recognizes women’s growing economic power and influence in the film industry.

“Caged Heat: The ®evolution of Women-in-Prison Films,” written by Suzanna Danuta Walters, considers “the murky realm of ‘B’ film making and exploitation schlock” (106). She introduces and analyzes several women-in-prison films such as: Condemned Women (1938, directed by Lew Landers), Women’s Prison (1955, directed by Lewis Seiler), House of Women (1962, directed by Walter Doniger), The Big Doll House (1971, directed by Jack Hill), Born Innocent (1974, directed by Donald Wrye), Caged Heat (1974, directed by Jonathan Demme), Chained Heat (1983, directed by Paul Nicholas) among many other films. The author conceptualizes the ways in which these films are revolutionary in the representation of female violence. Walters concludes that besides being nauseatingly violent, these movies are, at the same time, often humorous. Therefore they open new and alternative possibilities for free discussion on the problematization of femininity and the exploration of female violence. According to Walters, the key in these stories is the treatment of systemic injustice, which appears frequently in the patterns of classic Hollywood narratives. These above listed films provide a serious critique of class and gender politics while explicitly treating also racial issues and can also be interpreted as modes of female empowerment and female bonding.

In the essay entitled “Sharon Stone’s (An)Aesthetic,” Susan Knobloch examines Sharon Stone’s star persona and her violent woman roles in Basic Instinct (1992, directed by Paul Verhoeven), Casino (1995, directed by Martin Scorsese), The Quick and the Dead (1995, directed by Sam Raimi), and Diabolique (1996, directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik). Knobloch’s stance is that Sharon Stone’s performance, her art, and acting are dual with a constant ambiguity in them. She states that Stone’s persona is built upon the binary oppositions of wielder of violence/victim of violence and trustworthy helper/liar, while Stone’s embodiments of these oppositions are interchangeably gynocentric and androcentric, therefore Stone’s star image can be interpreted in both feminist and antifeminist ways. This essay emphasizes the importance of acting techniques and examines Stone’s acting ability; it finally concludes that Hollywood is still far from conceiving the realistic figure of the violent woman.

“Part II: New Bonds and New Communities” leads with Laura Grindstaff’s “Sometimes Being a Bitch Is All a Woman Has to Hold On To: Memory, Haunting, and Revenge in Dolores Claiborne.” In this well-structured and informative essay, Grindstaff analyzes Dolores Claiborne (1995, directed by Taylor Hackford) by presenting the ways in which women can fight back and survive the injustices of patriarchy with the help of female bonding and solidarity. According to the author, this film is a combination of maternal melodrama, which focuses on “the primacy of the mother-daughter bond and the importance of maternal sacrifice” (142), and gothic romance that borrows elements from the classic film noir and also detective genres. This movie is also a battleground for issues of gender and class-based inequalities in the United States. The writer illustrates, through the words of Vera (one of the film’s characters), why women resort to violence in the conceptual framework of this film: in a “depressingly masculine world” (161) a woman sometimes “have to be a high-riding bitch to survive” and “[s]ometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hang on to” (162). Grindstaff’s stance is that Dolores Claiborne shows similarities to heroines of the rape-revenge films because “[t]hese women circumvent the law and play according to the rules of a higher justice because they understand the law has never been particularly friendly to women in matters of sexual assault” (167). Grindstaff suggests that this film reveals the flaws and inadequacies of the current legal system and the imperfections of the cultural norms of patriarchy while provides possible “imagined violence” with the help of which women can fight violence with violence.

Kimberly Springer explores the representation of African American women on screen in general and specifically considers the issue from the point of view of violence in “Waiting to Set It Off: African American Women and the Sapphire Fixation.” By analyzing Waiting to Exhale (1995) directed by Forest Whitaker and Set it Off (1996) directed by F. Gary Gray, Springer discusses the possible change in the representation of African American women in American cinema, as well as on television and other media. Today, there is a great chance to abolish old clichés like the “Mammy” (the happy servant), the “Jezebel” (the carnal woman serving the sexual needs of the white slave owners) and the “Sapphire” (as defined by bell hooks cited in this work “as Sapphires, black women were depicted as evil, treacherous, bitchy, stubborn, and hateful, in short all that the mummy figure was not” (175)). Springer claims that African American women have long been confined to roles such as maid, sensitive nanny, prostitute and the “best-friend-who-is-murdered-before-she-can-warn-the-white-protagonist” (196) and now there is the possibility of changing all this together with the strict duality of permissible behavior for African-American women: “passive and subservient or uncontrollable and rebellious” (174). It is “the Sapphire” that gains central role in the argumentation and its definition and analysis closes with a view that this is the icon which has a “future”; “the Sapphire” is considered by the author as a sort of positively modified role model of African American women at the end of the twentieth century.

Barbara L. Miller, in the chapter entitled “The Gun-in-the-Handbag, a Critical Controversy, and a Primal Scene,” focuses on two films: in greater part on Thelma and Louise (1991) directed by Ridley Scott and in smaller part on The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag (1991) directed by Allan Moyle. Here Miller theorizes the type of women-and-gun films that she calls “gun-in-the-handbag” films (203). As Miller analyses the above-mentioned movies, she demonstrates how this special “genre” was constituted, what its specificities were and what their actual social/economic/political context was in the early nineties when they were produced. The central element of the gun-in-the-handbag films is the transformation of the initially innocent and unassuming female leading character (usually a housewife of the “wouldn’t hurt a bug” type) (202) into a violent woman through the initiation ritual of a modified “primal scene” (in psychoanalytic terms, when “a child […] observes the parents having sex and interprets this as an act of violence by the father” (207)). These films, however, rewrite this primal scene as a crime scene, thus turning it into a primal-crime scene, which eventually triggers the events and the transformation of the female character resulting in the upheaval of order, plus, the destabilization of sex roles, and decentering of sexual identities and creating (constant) shifts of identity, which result in female empowerment á la Thelma and Louise.

In a research study entitled “Action Heroines and Female Viewers: What Women Have to Say,” Tiina Vares deals with the issue of female audience reception of female action heroes. Vares processes and explores the results of her interviews concerning the topic with five groups of women viewers. The task of the groups was to watch Thelma and Louise (1991) directed by Ridley Scott, and then to interpret it and discuss the possible reactions to the film. These five separate groups consisted of women who participate in martial arts (marked with the letter “M”), women who watch a lot of films – film buffs (“F”), university students interested in gender and representation (“U”), women who belong to peace groups (“P”) and women who belong to battered women’s refuge collective (“R”). Although these groups represent a selected diverse group, no clear explanation is given as to why such categories were created or why such groups would provide the most relevant answers to the question investigated. However, the essay demonstrates that the reactions and interpretive strategies are not homogenous (or static) but rather context-dependent, and that subsequent viewings usually alter them. Vares concludes that is there is a real interest in how female spectators respond to images of women using weapons then special attention has to be paid to what they have to say about these characters on screen.

Judith Halberstam argues that imagined violence is a way to empower those outside power positions in the final chapter entitled “Imagined Violence/Queer Violence: Representations of Rage and Resistance. Imagined violence “is the fantasy of unsanctioned eruptions of aggression from the wrong people, of the wrong skin, the wrong sexuality, the wrong gender” (263). Halberstam claims that we have to be capable of imagining violence because the power of fantasy does not represent but rather destabilizes the real. The most important feature of imagined violence, in accordance with David Wojnarowicz, is that “it is by imagining violence that we can harness the force of fantasy and transform it into productive fear” (246). By analyzing and discussing the controversy around Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” rock song, the films: Thelma and Louise (1991) directed by Ridley Scott and Basic Instinct (1992) directed by Paul Verhoeven, the documentary film Silverlake Life: The View from Here (1993) directed by Peter Friedman and Tom Joslin, the book by David Wojnarowitz entitled Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, and a poem by June Jordan, Halberstam concludes that “imagined violences challenge powerful white heterosexual masculinity and create a cultural coalition of postmodern terror” (264).

Reel Knockouts, Violent Women in the Movies discusses several aspects of violent women in films and by analyzing them the volume provides useful and informative material for many people interested in the topic, among them especially: film studies scholars, feminist scholars, scholars of sociology and university students alike (especially those specializing in either of these fields). What the reader misses is a brief introductory discussion about the representation of violent women on screen in the first half of the twentieth century and about a short examination of the evolution of these figures. Since the work prides itself on offering “the first book-length treatment of violent women in the movies” (2), one expects it to devote some attention to its precedents, as well. However, if we “combine” this book with, for example, Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape: the Treatment of Women in the Movies (1974), we can get a complex and indeed more complete view of this subject. Hence, in spite of this shortcoming, Reel Knockouts, Violent Women in the Movies is both a profitable work and not least, an enjoyable reading.