- Here’s the second part of yesterday’s post from Alice Slater. Want a go on the feminist-pop-culture-adventure soapbox? Send your pitch to [email protected]!
According to Eli Roth, it was a conscious choice for the first example of nudity in Hostel II (2007) to be that of a man. Following the credit sequence and a quick catch up with Hostel survivor Paxton (Jay Hernandez), we’re introduced to our victims.
Far from the seedy lights of Amsterdam, these beautiful college-age women are in a life drawing class in Rome. Within thirty seconds, the male nude is replaced by a female model, Axelle (Vera Jordanova), who disrobes to the sound of audible gasps. Her gaze lingers on our main character, Beth (Lauren German). Beth grits her teeth, her forehead puckered into a tense frown as she begins to sketch.
“Jeans, no heels,” is what Beth says when asked if she’s packed for their upcoming trip to Prague with friends Whitney and Lorna. Beth may as well be called Sidney or Laurie: she is masculinised, her relationship with the female model Axelle is eroticised (Whitney even jokingly refers to Axelle as Beth’s ‘girlfriend’) and it is revealed that Beth keeps her father on an allowance following the death of her wealthy mother.
Beth and Axelle’s encounters are carefully structured to be titillating, and yet Beth’s sexuality is never openly discussed. Compared to the view of male homosexuality depicted in the first Hostel film, we’re in full-on homophobic fratboy territory here: lesbians are hot (as long as they’re young, slim and not too gay), and gay men are scary and have to be repressed.
Hostel II differs to Hostel in that we get a deeper understanding of how the whole operation works, focalised through two American clients, Todd and Stuart. “This isn’t like going to a whorehouse,” Todd explains to reluctant Stuart after they successfully bid a collective $100,000 on securing Whitney and Beth as their torture victims. “You can’t just back out.”
Roth works hard to ensure the viewer feels an iota of sympathy for Stuart: he is de-masculinised by a practical and demanding wife, he lacks charisma, and he has to be cajoled into the Hostel experience by the powerhouse Todd. Todd compares their first kill to losing their virginity; Stuart pensively asks, “Do you think we’re sick?”
“We’re the normal ones,’ Todd replies, taking a deep sniff of cocaine. As they draw up to the factory, a mournful serenade plays as we see the doubt flicker across Stuart’s face. Roth asks us to feel sympathy for someone who has essentially been peer-pressured into paying vast sums of money to torture a woman – who intentionally resembles his wife, no less – to death.
Hostel twists itself into a game of privilege top trumps. The rich are powerful and the powerful are rich: the notion of power, and an individual’s lack of control over their own fate, presents a contemporary spin on the 18th century fear of the aristocracy, often portrayed through a vampiric allegory along the lines of Dracula.
Hostel II even includes a female client who pays hard cash to writhe – naked, naturally – in an Elizabeth Bathory-esque tub as the blood of virginal Lorna showers down upon her bare skin. It’s interesting to note that this is one of the few onscreen deaths of torture victims: the franchise often shies away from the so-called money shot (another grotesque connection between torture flicks and pornography).
Additionally, the fact that the only female client – aside from a stern silver-haired horsey type who unsuccessfully bids on the trio – chooses to murder her victim in this rather specifically vain method reinforces the assertion that for women, beauty is a matter of life and death. (This is also articulated in Hostel when the infamous “eyeball” woman catches sight of her mutilated face and throws herself from the arms of safety to certain death under a speeding train).
The fate of Whitney is grisly: she is made up ‘for the client’ in a corset and smudged, clownish make up. Todd gets cold feet, and so she is offered around and sold to the highest bidder. Sensitive Stuart finds his sea legs and takes her on as a warm up for Beth, who is dressed in a suit and made to even further resemble his wife.
How does Beth survive? She seduces him, naturally, then chops his dick off and pays her way out because she’s stinkin’ freakin’ rich. Let’s not forget her place, though: after negotiating with the Alan Sugar of the Hostel world, she is bent over a table and tattooed on the small of her back, rather than her bicep, ankle or, oh I don’t know, anywhere on her body that wouldn’t liken the process to being fucked from behind.
In a world in which The Human Centipede exists (and actually manages to generate enough revenue to produce a sequel), the so-called “torture porn” movement seems to have finally tipped over the edge into self-parody. The golden age for splatter flicks was 2002-2007. Since then, things seemed to have waned.
The biggest horror titles of 2012 suggest a rekindled preference for things that go bump in the night, with poltergeists, paranormal happenings and possession pictures enjoying a rise in popularity. The washed-up sequels of classic Splat Pack originals, such as Hostel III and Saw ad infinitum, are slinking off into the background – and good riddance.
- Today we’re honoured to welcome Alice Slater to the BadRep Towers soapbox for the first of two posts. Wanna join the party? Send your pitch to [email protected]!
It’s unsurprising to learn that the big names in the so-called “torture porn” movement are all blokes. Known as the Splat Pack, James Wan (Saw, Dead Silence), Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes), Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel), Greg McLean (Wolf Creek), Rob Zombie (House of 1000 Corpses, Halloween) and Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II-IV) all specialise in a brand of horror that leans heavily on sadism and graphic onscreen gore – the more creative and toe-curlingly disgusting, the better.
Eli Roth met a wave of criticism for the gender roles in Hostel (2005), a film in which all the women are either sex workers, hypersexualised and morally repugnant, strung out on enough narcotics to render them completely obsolete as anything other than onscreen ass, or all of the above (with the exception of two Japanese twentysomething tourists, who are portrayed as giggling and coquettish – the stereotypical western idealisation of Japanese women as schoolgirlish and subservient).
Roth, being a sensitive chap at heart, created Hostel Part II as a response – kind of like Neil Marshall hopping from Dog Soldiers to The Descent. Nice try, Eli. The gender politics are equally terrible in Hostel II. I know – “I can’t believe it!” said absolutely no one.
Now, horror isn’t the most feminist genre, but it’s my genre of choice. Female nudity, themes of female virginity and scenes of a sexual nature are prevalent in horror, from chaste Janet Leigh’s infamous shower scene to the chesticular fireworks of Piranha 3DD. Sex and death – the circle of life, as Sir Elton calls it – are intrinsically linked, and often sit well side by side. We all know what the phrase “torture porn” refers to, but there’s a problematic duality created by suggesting that sadistic violence and sexual gratification are titillating in the same way. It reduces the whole horror genre to something akin to Bizarre magazine: Blood! Tits! Tits covered in blooood!
Hostel opens with an unsympathetic bunch of lads on tour as they weave through the streets of Amsterdam. The group laugh at sensitive, still-getting-over-his-ex Josh (Derek Richardson) for suggesting they take a break from smoking pot and chasing skirt to check out a museum or two. Then they fistbump and hi-five their way through the Red Light District. It leaves us all feeling well primed for the next hour and a half of blood, guts and dismemberment because they are quite possibly the most unlikeable people in the history of humanity (apart from Jeremy Clarkson, who retains his crown of The Worst).
“Paying to go into a room to do whatever you want to someone isn’t exactly a turn-on,” says Sensitive Josh, and we all cock our heads and recognise that he is definitely going to die. The anti-sex work comparison drawn between prostitution and the premise of Hostel – the rich paying high prices to torture and kill others – doesn’t go unnoticed.
Loutish and drunk, the lads are denied entrance to their hostel. As a rain of glass bottles smashes around their feet, an eastern European tourist offers refuge in his hostel room. Here, Sensitive Josh awkwardly explains the definition of ‘clitoris’ (“Women have it? It’s like right near the labia? Like, it hangs?”) and talk naturally turns to sex.
“Looking for girls?” their new friend Alex asks. He then creepily shows them photos of himself having sex with women “so hot, you won’t believe it”. He explains that the women of Bratislava “go crazy for any foreigner. You just… take them.”
After hearing one of the most chilling phrases in the history of patriarchy, off the threesome go to Bratislava. A creep on the train confirms that eastern European women are smokin’ hot and DTF. He then places a hand on Sensitive Josh’s thigh and Josh reacts as though he’s just had his Achilles tendons cut (and we can be accurate here because that is exactly what happens to him approximately twenty minutes later).
This brief moment of casual homophobia is not to be overlooked: Josh, the sensitive one, the most respectful and the least sexually repugnant of the three, later places his hand on this man’s thigh in a sincere yet hesitant apology – moments after being called a “faggot” by Paxton. “I would have done the same thing at your age,” the man says, regarding Josh’s extreme and aggressive reaction to the hand-on-thigh moment from before. “It’s not easy, but from my experience, choosing to have a family was the right choice for me. Now I have my little girl, who means more to me than anything. But you should do what’s right for you.”
Hold on, what? It’s no coincidence that the next shot is of Josh ‘making his choice’ – on the brink of having sex with an incredibly attractive woman. Because of course, sexuality is a choice and the option of having a family is strictly for those that choose ‘straight’.
Anyway, the hostel is everything they imagined and more: slender young women shoot them come-hither looks, are totally chill to hang out in the spa with their tits out, and laugh at their inane jokes. Reader, our trio of lads go dancing, pop pills and eventually fuck their roommates to Willow’s Song, the alluring siren’s song performed by Britt Eckland as she seduces the copper in 1973’s hit cult flick The Wicker Man (incidentally, another movie about a community seducing and eventually murdering outsiders).
The problem? These are not sexually liberated tourists, having a laugh and shagging a bunch of goons for the fun of it. They, like Willow of The Wicker Man, are duplicitous: the sex is the primer for the betrayal, because we all know that sexually liberated women are up to no good.
- Come back tomorrow for Part 2, in which Alice looks at Hostel II – and its more prominent female characters – in more detail…
- By day, Alice Slater is a writer and bookseller from London. By night, she is a horror film addict who always keeps the lights on. She writes for Mslexia and Drunken Werewolf, and she blogs about veg*n high jinx at SmokinTofu.com.
- Ed’s Note: This post is partly in honour of Poems Underwater, a new project on the symbolism of the mermaid our Hodge is involved with, which you are hereby urged to check out (and perhaps contribute to, as it has a zine and everything!).
Released in 1989, Disney’s The Little Mermaid heralded the start of the ‘Disney Renaissance’ – a period of critical and commercial success that followed a rocky patch where the studio’s prime focus had been on Disneyland attractions rather than feature films.
It was soundtracked by Broadway golden boy Howard Ashman, who changed the planned English butler crab into a Jamaican crustacean named Sebastian, and reworked the film’s structure to more closely align with that of a Broadway musical. He also decided to base Ursula the Sea Witch on drag artist and disco star Divine (who died whilst the film was still in production).
Ashman died of AIDS two years later, in March 1991, but his musical influence, first on Mermaid, and subsequently on Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, was a major factor in the regeneration of the studio in the early nineties. Mermaid won Oscar gongs for Best Song and Best Score, the first Oscar nod for Disney since the Seventies.
Mermaids of the Eighties
The Disney studio had been considering Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid for adaptation as early as the Snow White years, but it was not until the late Eighties that the time finally seemed right. Even then, there was concern it might too closely duplicate Splash, which Disney had produced in 1984.
Splash itself had been rushed through production because there were rumours of another mermaid film in the pipeline elsewhere – a Warren Beatty vehicle that eventually fell through. Why exactly mermaids were suddenly in the ascendant during this particular period of the late twentieth century is open to speculation; at any rate, the nudity and adult content in Splash led directly to the creation of Touchstone Pictures, Disney’s ‘older audiences’ label. Mermaids (particularly Darryl Hannah’s mermaid) were too sexual for the family studio in 1984.
Ironically, of course, mermaid – “maiden of the sea” – suggests that these aquatic women are rather more virginal than ‘Touchstone Pictures’ thought. Traditional (cisnormative) misogynistic popular wisdom holds women in general to be ‘leaky vessels’, because of the amount of ‘moisture’ they produce, but though mermaids live in the water, they have no apparent human genitalia, making them, by contrast, vessels that are rather neatly sealed.
In this, they link with the Virgin Mary, who appears in Catholic symbolism as a ‘fountain forever sealed’ in the middle of an enclosed garden, representing the Immaculate Conception. Mary’s homonymic (and virginal) association with mermaids, and the link between the sea (mer) and the mother (mere) introduces an additional layer to this.
Alongside this, there is also a parallel virgin/whore tradition of the mermaid as prostitute and even embodied vagina (since, famously, vaginas are often described as smelling like fish).
This opposing strand presumably comes from sailors’ fear of the Siren-figure and the unknowns out in the sea, but it’s also connected with a different type of mermaid altogether – the melusine. A double-tailed half-woman, half-fish, her intrinsic, though hidden, fishiness only emerges when she takes a bath. Even then, the double tail leaves her human genitalia open to the world in what some have claimed is an appropriation of older symbols of female fertility, such as the Sheela na gig or even the goddess Venus (an alternative ‘mother’ connection).
Incidentally the melusine, not the mermaid, is the figure in the (now closely cropped) logo for Starbucks coffee, the first branch of which opened – logo blazing proud, bare-breasted and double-tailed – in 1971, a decade before Splash went into production.
The coffee-shop melusine was maintained in her full glory until 1987 (although she was ‘sealed’ at the point where the tails meet, as her original had not been); the first of several censoring crops came into effect around the time Disney bosses turned their attention to Andersen.
For a modern contrast to the ‘sealed off’ melusine, have a look at one of the mermaids commissioned by men’s deodorant brand Lynx for an early Noughties advertising campaign, whose posterior is beginning to resurface through her scales, soft porn-like.
Planning The Little Mermaid
Hans Christian Andersen’s original Little Mermaid tale was serviceable, but – much like Starbucks’ logo – it had to be sanitised before Disney could take it to a Disney audience. Tellingly, the changes proposed during this period of pre-production were substantially same as the ones suggested during the preliminary work in the Thirties.
The first thing to do was give it a happy ending, since in Andersen’s version the Prince’s indifference to the mermaid results in her annihilation and transformation to ‘a daughter of the air’.
This was typical Andersen: he wrote that ‘most of what I have written is a reflection of myself’, and he was not a terribly happy man. Unreciprocated love was an ongoing feature of his life, and throughout it he nursed passions for various inappropriate people.
These included celebrity soprano Jenny Lind (who is said to have inspired his story The Nightingale after she put him firmly in the friendzone in 1844) and various straight men, but he also wrote of avoiding actual sexual encounters – his diary records him visiting prostitutes, talking to them, and then returning home to masturbate alone.
Many of his ‘fairy tales’ are characterised by violence, speechlessness and unreciprocated love, often across two different ‘species’, as with the tin soldier’s love for a paper ballerina in The Steadfast Tin Soldier, or indeed the Little Mermaid’s love for the human Prince – a feature that tends to make them, like their author, rather sexless in approach.
Although the sad stuff was scrapped, the symbolically significant speechlessness of the Mermaid was maintained in the Disney screenplay. A mermaid’s voice is her primary power, since her singing can lure sailors to their deaths, so its loss is a significant one – aphonia in a milder form had also been a feature of Splash, where Darryl Hannah’s character cannot initially speak English.
Disney’s Ariel was voiced by Broadway star (and Ashman associate) Jodi Benson, and her voice remains her defining beauty in the film. But the manner of its loss changes: while both Little Mermaids give their voices up to the Sea Witch, in Andersen’s story the unnamed mermaid has her tongue cut out to bring this about. Disney cleaned this up, and, in the process, rendered it reversible: Ariel’s voice is depicted as a glowing, ghostly ball that can pass through bodily barriers without drawing blood – as in traditional artistic representations of the soul.
Ironically, this is exactly what Andersen’s mermaid is seeking: her love for the prince is the means through which she hopes to win ‘immortality’ and the chance to share in the joys of paradise. (This rather Romantic notion, albeit gender-inverted, links Andersen’s tale thematically with Friedrich de la Motte’s mermaid Undine – and also Tchaikovsky’s watery Swan Lake, composed in 1875, the year Andersen died). Disney refocused the mermaid’s longing for a soul to a more secular – and sexualised – teenage quest for the love of a handsome prince.
She sells sea shells
But Disney hit a problem when it came to the artwork. Mermaids, of course, are typically bare-breasted, but so too were traditional depictions of Andersen’s ‘little’ mermaid, including the statue in Copenhagen’s harbour.
There is not a single illustration to the fairy tale pre-Disney that shows her wearing anything at all over her chest – in the case of Heath Robinson, this emphasises the ‘Little’ part, as the mermaid is clearly a child in his illustrations.
The mermaid is fifteen in Andersen’s tale, so her littleness could be argued either way, but in 1989 Disney producers obviously decided they wanted her to be legal (in most states anyway). To make it completely clear, in the course of the film Ariel declares to her father (a familiar refrain) ‘I’m sixteen years old. I’m not a child.’
But however innocently naked (and animated) the Little Mermaid might be, Disney certainly could not show a sixteen year old’s breasts on screen. Their solution to this problem was the creation of a purple bra made out of shells – a new mermaid first.
When coupled with the waistband-like arrangement at the top of her tail (another innovation, since traditionally the mermaid’s scales segue gradually from the skin at her waist), this decision had the effect of creating a kind of mermaid bikini that implies she might just be wearing an elaborate two-piece – one very similar, in fact, to the ensemble worn by Princess Jasmine in Disney’s next film, Aladdin. And, of course, it also has the effect of emphasising breasts and hips either side of a tiny waist.
The Barbie-style Ariel doll I had as a child had (as modern-day packaging still asserts) ‘removable clothes for costume change‘, so it was clear she was a two-legged being with an optional tail.
This has the effect of making the transition from mermaid to human much easier: in Andersen’s story, creating two legs out of one fish tail is exactly as vicious as you would expect it to be, and the draught the mermaid drinks to effect this causes the sensation of ‘a two-edged sword [passing] through her delicate body’ – so severe she passes out. Throughout her subsequent time on land, each foot she puts to the ground feels like ‘treading upon the points of needles or sharp knives’.
Bodily mutilation – indeed, mortification – is everywhere in Andersen’s story. After everyone is asleep, the mermaid goes to ‘sit on the broad marble steps [of the palace] for it eased her burning feet to bathe them in the cold sea-water’. Significantly – and somewhat bizarrely – such mutilation has been an ongoing problem for the Copenhagen representation of Andersen’s mermaid: the statue in the harbour has been blown up, decapitated (twice) and had its arm sawn off, in addition to many petty acts of vandalism since its erection in 1913.
By contrast with Andersen’s difficult transition, Ariel’s easy-on, easy-off fish tail and bikini bra combo not only ‘re-opens’ the traditional closed mermaid vessel, it also sexualises the teenage mermaid in a manner markedly different from anything in Andersen’s original (where the mermaid’s love is increased by knowledge of the prince’s good deeds, and her longing for a soul).
By censoring Ariel, Disney draws attention to her body and breasts, so she resembles a California surfer girl. The nakedness, which in earlier illustrations was straightforward and childlike, takes on an explicitly sexual edge (for more on this, have a look at this piece by Virginia Borges).
The result is that Disney’s Little Mermaid becomes the straightforward tale of a sixteen-year-old struggling with her father for the right to explore her burgeoning sexuality and go out with a boy. And because she ultimately uses this right to make a good marriage (wearing something strikingly similar to the dress worn by the equally speechless Princess Diana at her 1981 marriage), Ariel makes good in the end and everyone is happy.
Like most of the Disney Renaissance heroines, hers is the story of a successful transition from the rule of the father to the rule of the husband.
But it’s interesting that at the same time the producers were working on a heteronormative middle-class fantasy idea, their musical wunderkind Howard Ashman (despite dying of what, at the time, was popularly cast as a very non-family-friendly disease) was injecting some Broadway pizzazz into the soundtrack. This included the introduction of a deviantly-styled figure like Divine via the character of Ursula, the Sea Witch (though of course she is defeated, as does not happen in Andersen).
In fact, as the Disney Renaissance got going, the calibre of stars from distinctly non-Disney backgrounds increased: The Lion King, the Renaissance nadir, had major Broadway stars alongside A-list Hollywood stars, and the cast included black and Latino actors – something that had not even been considered back in the Forties (when Uncle Walt wanted some racial-caricature ‘Jim Crow’ figures in Dumbo, the crows were voiced by white men doing their best ‘black man’ impression instead). The staff list at the Disney studios was full of Jewish and homosexual figures like Ashman. Yet The Little Mermaid ushered in some of the most socially conservative films Disney produced. A strange duality.
I am supposed to be writing about Bioshock Infinite right now (which is amazing and you should all play it right bloody now) but then, something happened.
Something long-awaited, occasionally hoaxed, but nobody was ever entirely sure would ever come to pass…THE SUN CAME OUT AND SPRING ARRIVED IN THE UK, FINALLY. And also there was the death of 87-year-old Margaret Thatcher of a stroke at the end of a protracted illness.
And lo, the internet did have a field day. Twitter was a maelstrom of popping corks, whitewashing of one of the darkest times post-war Britain has faced, and joyous choruses of that song from The Wizard of Oz, all alongside expressions of disgust for every aspect of the reaction. The 8th of April 2013 will go down in Twitter history as a bona fide fustercluck.
The New Statesman ran a brief and to-the-point piece about whether or not Thatcher could or should be considered a feminist icon. In the words of the Iron Lady herself, “I hate feminism. It is poison.”
So far, so cut-and-dry. But her words have been niggling at me somewhat. She’s not the first woman to denounce and distance herself from feminism. Nor will she be the last. But I cannot help but wonder what would drive a woman who would never have reached her position without feminism to speak out against it with such contempt.
While we can now only speculate on why her personal views were what they were, I’m reminded of a few arguments I hear with disheartening frequency about why feminism isn’t needed and why feminists need to shut up.
Spoilers: I am neither moved nor convinced by any of them.
1. “I don’t need feminism. We have the vote. It’s done. Women are totes equal. Get over it.”
This line of reasoning barely dignifies a response beyond pointing out, somewhat wearily, that it’s demonstrably untrue. Whether we’re talking pay gaps, sexual abuse, street harassment, representation in politics, assumptions about childcare arrangements or anything else in an endless list of smaller inequalities adding up to a great big unequal world. Yes, women in the UK have it better than at any point in the past; no, that doesn’t mean that equality has happened.
2. “I’m just ‘one of the lads’ in my social group/place of work. Feminists are trying to drive a wedge between me and the men in my life by making a fuss over nothing.”
It is wonderful to be accepted as socially or professionally equal to men. Yet I felt bile rising in my throat as I typed that. Being “one of the lads”, while harmless on the face of it, is an argument that has some rather unpleasant meanings once you place it under scrutiny. It panders directly to the “man, rather than person, as default” rhetoric that pervades almost every corner of our society.
This line of reasoning erases feminine identities and elevates stereotypically masculine traits or interests as something one should aspire to and work towards, something essential for social acceptance. There is internalised misogyny afoot every time a self-proclaimed “ladette” crows about chugging pints of beer, watching a match, ogling boobs or besting her boyfriend at Modern Warfare 2. The heavily implied sentiment here is “these are all MAN things and I am more like a MAN for doing them and that puts me above all of you feminists trying to spoil my fun.”
None of these activities are inherently “gendered”, and the fact you behave like they are is sort-of-kind-of-rather undermining those of us genuinely striving for equality.
3. “Everybody should be judged on merit. Feminism is trying to give women a leg-up over men and that is unfair!”
Yes, the promotion of one group of people over another based on nothing but their attributes at birth is inherently unfair, and no, this is not what the majority of feminists want.
Feminists LIKE men. In fact, plenty of feminists ARE men. Feminism is about reaching equality, or parity, whatever you want to call it. It is a movement against the oppression of hundreds of years. In most fields of employment, and certainly at the highest levels, women are underrepresented. If you really believe that we already exist in a meritocracy, how else could you account for this disparity without the spurious notion that “men are just better at everything, LOL”?
Feminists are not seeking to take anything away from men: they are simply trying to level the still-slanted playing field so that the ball stops rolling into the men’s goal by default. Sure, it’s not the vertiginous cliff face it once was, but the angle of elevation still very much favours the dudes. If you want a meritocracy, you have to submit to its conditions. If you believe the only way you can succeed is by ensuring that the oppressive status quo is maintained, then you may need to revisit your understanding of the term “individual merit.
These are just three of the more common arguments I hear. From women with whom I am friends, it’s troubling, but can at least be the start of a constructive dialogue. From women in the public eye, however, from politician to pop star, these are toxic messages that reinforce oppression and can thwart the ambitions of girls and women.
The cognitive shift from “Hey, I can do that, and I happen to be a girl!” to “I would like to do that, but I’m a girl” may sound subtle, but its impact is potentially devastating. The dismissive words of a high-achieving female role model can make all the difference, so it’s vital that we understand that these women would not be where they are today without feminism and that their public declarations show a fundamental lack of understanding about the ongoing struggle for equality.
- Image from Laura Forest’s ‘Who Needs Feminism?’ album on Flickr.
Won’t you have another cucumber sandwich? Why, I don’t know what you mean, they taste just fine to me…
I love the clichés of twee British TV murder mysteries – the village fete, the teacup switch, the gunshot in the dark room – but what I like best is the presence of lots of fantastic old ladies, a group which are underrepresented in nearly every other type of television genre.
In 1999, people over 60 made up 21 percent of the UK population, but just 7 percent of the television population (source) and in 2012 a BBC report (PDF) flagged the absence of older women on TV as a major problem.
I’ve said in another post that for the most part in popular culture, old women are given one of just two identities: dear old biddy or evil crone. In Twee British Murder there is a greater range of stereotypes to be found, although the biddy/crone dichotomy is still there. Through by no means a comprehensive list, I’ve identified five overlapping Twee British Murder character options for older women.
1) The Help
An army of elderly female housekeepers, cooks, nurses, cleaners and secretaries form a vital part of the machinery of Twee British Murder.
Although they are rarely the killer, and tend to be only incidental victims (when they Know Too Much, for example) they have a vital dramatic function, especially as witnesses.
The cook remembers that someone different from usual offered to take the breakfast tray up to her mistress, the former nanny recalls a crucial detail from a suspect’s past…
It’s these long-suffering souls that make up the bulk of body-finders too, although they’re almost always questioned and dismissed with no further contribution except looking anxious.
But why are the servants and employees so swiftly ruled out? This 1928 article, 20 Rules for Writing Detective Fiction, states that:
A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.
Of course! Servants are a bunch of crims already: making one of them the murderer would be TOO OBVIOUS.
Moving on. An atypical member of this category is Sherlock Holmes’ tolerant landlady, Mrs Hudson. This is from The Adventure of the Dying Detective:
The landlady stood in the deepest awe of him and never dared to interfere with him, however outrageous his proceedings might seem. She was fond of him, too, for he had a remarkable gentleness and courtesy in his dealings with women.
I am a little obsessed with the 1980s Granada series starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes. In this series, Mrs Hudson (played by Rosalie Williams) is an important part of the small ‘family’ which surrounds the detective. Here’s one of my favourite Mrs Hudson moments, from The Cardboard Box, at 4:40mins in:
2) Frail Rich Lady
Often bedridden, with elaborate medical care requirements, and generally found in a spooky old house surrounded by squabbling, grasping relatives, these women are often trying to make a last minute change to their will when they meet their demise.
Frail Rich Ladies tend to be victims, but can occasionally turns out to be killers. Letitia Blacklock in A Murder is Announced, Laura Welman in Sad Cypress, and Amelia Barrowby in How Does Your Garden Grow? are classic examples from the Christie canon, as is Emily Arundell from Dumb Witness.
Bearing in mind the underlying biddy/crone stereotype binary, most of the above examples are on the biddy side of things. But there’s a fabulous Frail Rich Lady getting her crone on in one of Baroness Orczy’s Lady Molly stories, The Woman in the Big Hat (PDF). She’s 12mins in:
3) Eccentric Spinster
Eccentric Spinsters are also occasionally widows. The important thing is that they have been manless long enough for their eccentricity to flourish.
This is my very favourite old lady character type, and one that I aspire to. One of the best examples is the three sisters in Agatha Christie’s Nemesis. Here they are having tea with Miss Marple, at 7:09 mins in:
I love how there’s a bit of a maiden, mother and crone thing going on, with Clothilde, the more bookish, stereotypable-as-mannish, serious one (crone), Anthea the ‘girly’, immature one (maiden) and their more well-adjusted sister Lavinia, who tries to keep everything under control (mother). Lavinia’s the one who had been married, of course, so she’s coded as noticeably more ‘normal’ than the other two.
The Bradbury-Scott sisters above are at the biddy end of the spinster spectrum, but there’s a fantastic crone version called Honoria Lyddiard in the Midsomer Murders episode Written In Blood. She’s at 5:28 mins in:
Eccentric Spinsters can be victims, witnesses or killers, and can often be found providing another dramatic function: introducing a supernatural, prophetic red herring.
This provides a contrast with the detective’s rational method and cheap thrills for the viewer, as well as obfuscating the sequence of events for both. Prunella Scales turns in a scene-stealing performance as psychic Eleanor Bunsall in another Midsomer Murders episode, Beyond the Grave, and in Dumb Witness one of the two Miss Tripps receives a message for Poirot, at 15:13mins in:
4) Village Busybody
A provincial murder mystery staple. Like the servants and staff, this character provides vital information and misinformation, clues and red herrings for viewers. Without this character, there might be no mystery at all. She is a key witness, frequently a victim because she’s seen or heard something she shouldn’t have, but never the killer.
Although she’s only middle-aged in the TV adaption, Caroline Sheppard is worth a mention because of Agatha Christie’s comment in her autobiography that:
It is possible that Miss Marple arose from the pleasure I had taken in portraying Dr Sheppard’s sister in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. She had been my favourite character in the book – an acidulated spinster, full of curiosity, knowing everything, hearing everything: the complete detective service in the home.
My New Year’s resolution this year was to get the word ‘acidulated’ into every tenth conversation.
While Caroline Sheppard is relatively harmless, her crone counterpart uses her knowledge to manipulate others. Mrs Rainbird is an extremely camp example of this in the Midsomer Murders pilot The Killings at Badger’s Drift at 22mins:
5) Wise Woman
*Puts on What Would Miss Marple Do? t-shirt*
There’s not enough space here to do her justice, and I haven’t managed to find the perfect clip, but I wanted to share this: in her autobiography Agatha Christie likens Miss Marple to her grandmother in that “though a cheerful person, she always expected the worst of everyone and everything, and was, with almost frightening accuracy, usually proved right.”
That “frightening accuracy” is the hallmark of the Wise Woman, and Marple isn’t the only one in this role solving murders – I’d also put forward Gladys Mitchell’s creation Mrs Bradley.
The glamorous TV version of Mrs Bradley played by Diana Rigg departs pretty drastically from the description of her appearance in the books (she is emphatically witch-like: “She possessed nasty, dry, claw-like hands, and her arms, yellow and curiously repulsive, suggested the plucked wings of a fowl”). Nonetheless, she still provides a worthy crone counterpart to Miss Marple’s biddiness. In this clip, she’s driving away from her ex-husband’s funeral at 3:40mins:
Zoe Brennan, in her book The Older Woman in Recent Fiction, links both Miss Marple and Mrs Bradley (as well as other older women detectives such as Miss Silver and Miss Pym) with feminine archetypes, from fairytale witches to the Furies. This is a connection which Agatha Christie clearly had in mind when one character gives Marple the nickname ‘Nemesis’.
For some more info about why this all matters, have a look at Understanding Age Stereotypes and Ageism (PDF). It’s also worth noting that while Twee British Murder is good on age diversity and features a lot of women characters, it fails dismally across other diversity strands.
[Guest Post] Lingerie, Women and Eroticism: A Brief Study of the 21st Century Agent Provocateur Woman (Part 2/2)
- Here’s Part 2 of Rarely Wears Lipstick founder and blogger Lori Smith‘s guest post two-parter (which is possibly mildly NSFW depending on how relaxed your workplace is!) Read Part 1 here.
Part 2: The Myth of the Agent Provocateur Woman
If it is understood that the dominant discourse still pertains to heterosexual and patriarchal ideologies, Agent Provocateur was certainly aiming to challenge this in 2008. The brochure for their Spring/Summer collection that year contains many examples of non-heteronormative behaviour.
A model in a swimming costume and stilettos stands in front of a seated, similarly attired woman, who touches her leg and looks up to her. Two women in satin lingerie and high heels are seen walking together – one has her hand on the other’s buttocks. A woman in animal print lingerie brandishes a spanking paddle and leans over an anonymous prostrate naked woman, whilst holding a rope that is attached to the submissive woman’s neck like a leash. An anonymous red-haired woman straddles a seated gasping woman whose arm is being stroked by a blonde in lingerie, brandishing a riding crop. Another woman, who is standing with her legs apart and her hands on her hips, watches an athletic female pole dancer. A topless woman in a red wig climbs on top of a woman in lingerie who lies, restrained, on a table.
There are also many examples of dominant female behaviour. Two women in bright coloured wigs and lingerie tie up and blindfold a clothed man on his knees. A man in underwear stands, with hands tied behind his back, displaying marks on his chest that suggest he has been struck by the riding crop held by the woman to his left. A handcuffed man is disrobed by a woman, whilst another woman records the scene using a professional video camera. A man lying restrained on a table, has his trousers unzipped by a lingerie-clad woman who is holding a glass of brandy and is staring directly at the viewer.
In this image, the Agent Provocateur woman is powerful yet playful. She is passionate, determined to satisfy her own desires and, from the facial expressions depicted, is clearly enjoying herself. She is active, not passive, and has agency.
However, in the 2012 brochure, the Agent Provocateur woman appears to have little or no agency. She faces the camera as if directed to by the photographer and is entirely the subject of the gaze – continually watching herself. This appears to be a return to the woman John Berger describes in Ways of Seeing:
She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life.
There is little or no resistance to dominant discourses in the images contained within this brochure. All of the women appear sexually available, but are inviting sex rather than pursuing it. A woman stands in lingerie and heels next to a similarly attired seated woman, both facing the viewer with their legs apart. A woman kneels on a velvet chair, glancing over her shoulder at the viewer, with her buttocks prominently displayed. A woman in lingerie reclines on a chaise longue. A seated woman with her legs apart, hand on hip, stares at the viewer. There is no interaction between these women, even when more than one appears in the same image. Their only purpose is to invite the viewer’s gaze.
Christian Jantzen and others conducted a series of interviews with white middle class women in Denmark. The results suggested that these women wear delicate lingerie in order to achieve a sensation rather than a look. They wear it for how it makes them feel – confident, sensual, happy and satisfied – not necessarily for how they will be perceived by their partner. Some of the interviewees even admitted that the men in their lives do not understand their desire for exquisite lingerie. For them, the purchase and wearing of beautiful expensive underwear is about much more than just sex. It is about identity, pleasure, knowing how to dress for the right occasion, and, occasionally, projecting a desired alternate self-image:
The importance of lingerie to most of our respondents is due to the fact that this kind of garment enables them to demonstrate that they can manage a modern femininity. By adhering to a certain scheme of classification, they show how they master their performance in different situations. This confirms their social self.
Their research suggests that presenting lingerie as something to be enjoyed by the viewer rather than the wearer would not appeal to women. Even if this is not always true of women outside of their small study sample, I would argue that the current representation of the Agent Provocateur woman would therefore not appeal to the customer the brand originally sought to attract.
To conclude, the Agent Provocateur woman’s identity is, like the identity of every woman, shaped by discourse and the ideologies she is exposed to. If the woman is surrounded by, and part of, discourse which challenges what is currently dominant, she will herself become part of a reverse discourse. Agent Provocateur was originally conceived by Corré and Rees as a celebration of femininity, and the initial representation of the Agent Provocateur woman emphasised the performativity of her gender and her rejection of the patriarchal ideologies so often present in lingerie advertising.
Although the association between Agent Provocateur lingerie and this playfully erotic yet not passive lifestyle is purely arbitrary, it was exceedingly easy for customers to see the brand’s values and decide whether or not they wished to adopt them. Through the act of putting on this particular brand of quality exotic lingerie, a customer would create her sense of self, create her gender and transform her life into that of the Agent Provocateur woman. All of this was successfully conveyed in the promotional images and advertising for the brand up until at least 2008.
In looking at the differences between the images used to promote the Spring/Summer 2008 collection and those of the Autumn/Winter 2012 collection, it could be argued that the sale of the brand to a multinational company had an effect on how the Agent Provocateur woman was represented. The brand’s ideal woman appears to now offer far less resistance to current discourses on gender, sexuality and femininity than she did when Corré and Rees first sought to use lingerie as a way to disrupt and question the fashion status quo.
In expanding the market for the brand, the new owners appear to be attempting to create erotic lingerie that does not offend, thus diluting the original ethos of Agent Provocateur. Perhaps it is the current discourse which has changed, or maybe the Agent Provocateur woman simply works with the current discourse rather than against it? However, it could also be claimed that what is considered to be erotic is entirely subjective.
[Guest Post] Lingerie, Women and Eroticism: A Brief Study of the 21st Century Agent Provocateur Woman (Part 1/2)
- Having had an awesome time at the Rarely Wears Lipstick Awards, in which we were nominated for Best Feminist Blog (and congrats to Stavvers, the fabulous winner!) we are very happy to have RWL founder and blogger Lori Smith back to BadRep Towers for a two-parter (which is possibly NSFW depending on how relaxed your workplace is! Maybe skip the vid)…
Part 1: Agent Provocateur, Discourse and Performativity
In 1971, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren set up ‘Let it Rock’, their first King’s Road boutique. Their son Joseph Corré followed in his parents’ footsteps and opened a shop in London with his wife Serena Rees in 1994. Named Agent Provocateur, the unusual boutique bridged a gap between the erotic lingerie sold in Soho’s sex shops and the respectable prettiness of the established quality brands sold in department stores.
Corré and Rees saw the brand as a vehicle for their creativity and their ideas about women and femininity. In 1995, they began a search for a woman who ‘would represent the concepts behind the clothes, model new designs, and be a spokesperson at upcoming events’. They saw the face of their brand as ‘charming, glamorous, curvy, independent and intelligent’ (see Agent Provocateur: A Celebration of Femininity).
The finalists of their competition were used as part of a publicity stunt at London Fashion Week, staging a demonstration against bland passionless fashion that drew the attention of the assembled press. After a decadent Miss Agent Provocateur Party had been held, where the winner was announced, Corré and Rees realised that a single woman couldn’t represent their brand’s values as the concept was too diverse. Every woman has the potential to become an agent provocateur.
Corré and Rees have since divorced, and in 2007, Agent Provocateur was purchased by 3i Group. This gradually led to a significant change in how the Agent Provocateur woman was represented in the brand’s advertising campaigns. The brochure to showcase the Spring/Summer 2008 collection retained a lot of the ethos of Corré and Rees’ original vision. It has a cover designed to look like an invitation to an exclusive party, featuring the text ‘you are cordially invited to attend a very private affair […] Bring a blindfold and an open mind!’. Each image inside forms part of a digitally-created montage, with the pages containing small parts of the panoramic whole, unfolding to reveal one uninterrupted tableau.
The models are depicted as attendees of the party and are engaging in activities of a sexual nature. Nothing pornographic is depicted, merely hints of erotic and light BDSM play. Most of the party guests are women, clothed in Agent Provocateur lingerie and swimwear, but there are also a number of men in the image. The women take both dominant and submissive roles, whilst the men are purely submissive.
Product information about the lingerie sets featured, such as name and price, is listed on the back of the image. With this choice of layout, it could be argued that the images are designed to be enjoyed first, and to be informative second.
By contrast, the Autumn/Winter 2012 collection is presented in a brochure containing separate images for each named set of lingerie, with the product details directly underneath each photograph. The theme of the collection is ‘Wilhelmina: Show Your True Self’ and the associated campaign focuses on a woman in Victorian London whose inner sensuality is revealed by a backstreet photographer’s magical camera.
Each image contains between one and three female models, with little or no interaction between them. The women are not engaged in any activity other than modelling the clothing for the viewer, and are, as such, passive subjects of the gaze. Hair and make up is consistent throughout and maintains the look of a catwalk show, where the models are presented as a homogenous entity – a representation of how the brand’s woman should physically embody that season’s look.
Each model’s ‘true self’ appears to be no different from the others. This presents us with a single type of Agent Provocateur woman, as opposed to the idea that she is present in all women, as Corré envisioned seventeen years previously.
Woman is desexualized at the very moment when she is stripped naked. We may therefore say that we are dealing in a sense with a spectacle based on fear, or rather on the pretence of fear, as if eroticism here went no further than a sort of delicious terror, whose ritual signs have only to be announced to evoke at once the idea of sex and its conjuration.
At the very heart of the original concept of the Agent Provocateur brand, when it was founded by Corré and Rees, was the idea of lingerie as a ritual sign which evoked the idea of sex. Although they sought to design underwear which referenced socially acceptable quality French lingerie, eroticism was very much a part of Agent Provocateur’s core values. They made the brand accessible to women who would not normally venture into sex shops to purchase erotic lingerie.
It could be argued that Corré and Rees were also responding to dominant discourse on sexuality and gender when they set up Agent Provocateur in the 1990s. In The History of Sexuality Volume 1, Michel Foucault analyses changes in discourse on sexuality and argues that discourse is a productive force; for example, leading to definitions of “normal” and “other”. He also looks at the concept of docile bodies versus active agency, discussing reverse discourse as an empowering method of countering the dominant discourse.
There is little doubt that Agent Provocateur – whose name refers to an undercover agent employed to provoke suspects to commit illegal punishable acts – originally sought to engage in a reverse discourse on female sexuality. In The History of Sexuality Volume 2, Foucault delves further and discusses what he calls ‘techniques of the self’, emphasising the role of practices and instruments in generating a sense of self.
Clothing is very much a ‘technique of the self’. People use their clothes to transform, change and project a chosen image on a daily basis. Although society still often restricts the individual’s choice of outerwear, unseen underwear offers the wearer a sense of agency. Lingerie is considered by many to be an instrument in generating a sense of self, and it is worth considering here that the self is also shaped by gender.
It is widely understood that gender is a cultural construction that is shaped by discursive forces. One of the main issues considered by Judith Butler is the performativity of gender. Gender is not a performance – as that suggests the performer returns to a more genuine self once they leave the stage – but it is performative, as we are all constantly putting on an act. Lingerie is but one aspect of the act of femininity.
Because there is neither an “essence” that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires, and because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all.
- Judith Butler
Therefore, what could possibly be more “womanly” than dressing oneself up in Agent Provocateur lingerie? In Gender Trouble, Butler explores the spaces of resistance to dominant discourses. Like Foucault, and with reference to his work, she asks how we can go beyond the boundaries imposed on us by discourse, and explores the concept of agency. Gender and identity are more of a “doing” than a “becoming”, and are constantly shaped by discourse. Like any woman, the Agent Provocateur woman’s identity is fluid. She is constantly made and remade by the forces around her.
- Lori Smith is a rant-lite feminist who enjoys turning her thoughts into word form and then throwing them at the internet to see what sticks. She does this on a regular basis over at Rarely Wears Lipstick, and has previously contributed to The F-Word under her Sunday name.
- Pop back tomorrow for Part 2 of Lori’s reflections.
When Hitchcock’s Psycho came out in 1960, its shower scene was instantly a sensation. Three minutes and fifty cuts, it broke rules previously sacrosanct: for starters, coming about forty minutes into the film, it killed off Janet Leigh, the film’s protagonist – with whom the audience had been invited to identify from those first opening shots of her carefully nondescript underwear. Not only this, its fifty cuts served the purpose of (in the director’s own words) ‘transferring the menace from the screen into the mind of the audience’. Viewers were no longer the blonde; they were the psycho. An uncomfortable shift.
In Silver Linings Playbook, the menace is all in in the mind – it’s a film about mental illness. It is presumably for this reason that director David O. Russell has chosen to reproduce that shower scene in it – though, represented via a series of individual flashbacks, he’s added some more visceral cuts into it, as well as a middle-aged professor who’s having an affair with this Norman Bates’s wife.
The film follows Pat (Bradley Cooper), who is bipolar, and his quest to get his marriage back together after returning home from a psychiatric hospital. We learn that his most recent breakdown was precipitated on discovering his wife Nikki in the aforementioned shower with a colleague; he attacked the man, which brought him up against assault charges and eventually landed him in the institution. Back home at the beginning of the film, Pat wants to get Nikki, and his marriage, back – despite his continuing mood swings, refusal to take medication and restraining order.
Then he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young woman whose husband has recently died in traumatic circumstances. She is similarly Troubled (she’s been fired for sleeping with all her co-workers) and they hit it off, in a vague way. She agrees to take a letter to Nikki if Pat will partner her in a dance competition.
The inevitable happens.
If you listen to Hollywood, there are dance competitions happening in every small town, every three minutes, just waiting for someone to do some self-actualisation through dance – as in dance movie stalwarts such as Strictly Ballroom, Flashdance or, its British equivalent, the Arts Council-funded Billy Elliot. This one brings plenty of opportunities for personal development, which – though not so pronounced as the ur-dance movies – is actually why Pat agrees to do it: he wants to prove to Nikki that he has changed, and grown, since the shower incident. Cinematic history tells him this is the way to do it.
But nonetheless, in Silver Linings Playbook, development through dance is not really the point: the dancing pops up towards the second half of the film, and while the rehearsals do force the characters to spend a lot of time doing semi-erotic stuff together, it’s not the primary impetus behind their falling in love.
Indeed, if you accept that dance in golden-era Hollywood is usually implied sex1, often in the context of romantic relationships between show-people who dance as part of their job (here, Fred Astaire tries to win Ann Miller back as his g/f by getting her to do the dance they perform on stage), you could say that Silver Linings is less about sex than it is about Feelings.
Feelings (that’s a capital F), are by contrast the preserve of the classic romcom, which – a true product of the Eighties - features extended, over-analytical examinations of the Self. It’s Hugh Grant and Woody Allen being neurotic and too self-aware; it’s realising you’re in love just in time to run down an aeroplane. It’s the power of the mind – its hopes, fears and wants – to overcome practical obstacles. And in Silver Linings Playbook, as I say, it’s all about the mind. It’s a romcom for the post-Hugh Grant generation, if you will.
Now, personally, I didn’t find the treatment of mental health as offensive as I know some did – David O. Russell has commented in interviews that he drew a lot from the experience of having a son with bipolar disorder, which does help. One thing that did bug me, though, was its pairing of a bipolar man with longstanding mental health issues with a hypersexual woman recovering from a traumatic bereavement. Pat’s problems are longstanding, but Tiffany’s troubles clearly have their origin in grief, and they happen to manifest themselves in a pattern of sexual behaviour that, as recounted, elicits visible salivation from her male companion. We might say, in fact, that in this film, there is Serious Mental Illness, and there is Sexy Mental Illness. That Pat’s initial crime puts him in the cinematic shoes of Norman Bates, whose murder is at root sexually motivated – though it is repeated here as a grotesque husband-on-lover attack – underscores this, though admittedly at one remove.
This is why the Psycho crib, for me, was a key moment – and partly because its appearance in the film is so downright weird. It parallels the dance competition trope as an interjection of popular film history, but I suppose it also draws together some of the film’s key themes: notably, though arguably ironically, psychosis (Hitchcock’s film played a major part in popularising the slang word psycho) and what you might very crudely call Hollywood ‘monster-cam’.
I suppose one reason for including the scene (something I spent a long time puzzling over) was that, by putting the audience in the eye-view of a man mid-breakdown unleashing his rage upon two people who happen to be naked (and one of them a woman) shows the terrible power of the mental threats the film explores: we see their vulnerability, and we are invited to consider the gender issues the attack brings to the surface. Within the context of the plot, it makes sense of Nikki’s need for a restraining order and perhaps even makes an ironic comment on the thigh-rubbing Hitchcock is widely accepted to have been doing throughout his own shower scene. It certainly makes you think back to the portrayal of mental illness in the deeply exploitative Psycho. In that sense, Silver Linings Playbook actually comes out reasonably well.
So, should you go and see it? I’d imagine if you were going to, you’ll have done so by now. But I think it’s worth seeing – despite those dodgy gender politics, it certainly makes you think.
- Considerably less ‘implied’ in the 1980s, as with the eponymous moves of Dirty Dancing. [↩]