Alternative Theory: The Essay Not Written

The Road Not Taken

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood

– Robert Frost

As anyone who spoke to me while I was struggling with this final paper will know, I struggled greatly with keeping my essay within the page count. So for this Alternative Theory assignment, I thought of all the possible incarnations this essay could have taken on, all the side streets and avenues it could have gone down, but didn’t, and decided to put this monster of a hyperlinked mess on my blog as a tribute to The Essay Not Written…

Because my mind is an associative map of fragmented thoughts and images, you will find also in the hyperlinks not just paragraphs foregone and similar theories not mentioned but sometimes videos to other films not mentioned in my essay and images, screenshots, videos, gifs (moving images!) I wished I could include in the print version of my paper to illustrate the points I tried to make in my essay.

The Negotiation of Female Sexuality in Were-Creature Feature Films

One of the main arguments in Teresa de Lauretis’ “Desire in Narrative” is how women are constantly “seduced into femininity” so they can be “remade again and again as woman” (588). By looking at the Oedipal myth, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, Laura Mulvey’s theory of “the gaze” from her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” and the filmic works of Alfred Hitchcock, de Lauretis offers a comprehensive cross-section across various discourses to suggest how women have been circumscribed in an all-encompassing Oedipal narrative that aims to shape them into fitting the mold of male desire. By taking a closer look at Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942), Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984), and John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps (2000), this essay hopes to illustrate how a novel way out of this circumscribing Oedipal narrative can be achieved through a cinesthetic experience of the female body as it is portrayed in these particular were-creature films, particularly in terms of how visceral contact with flesh, skin and body parts becomes a way of bringing these female characters back into contact with a kind of lived reality.

In order to flesh out this idea of a cinesthetic experience, this essay will draw on the Vivian Sobchack paper on phenomenology and film that coined this neologism – “What My Fingers Knew.” In this paper, Sobchack privileges the lived body of the spectator as the primary site where we first make “literal sense” of films through our powers of perception, before we can make “[figurative] sense” or meaning of them through more cognitive frameworks (58-9). In order to make this argument Sobchack draws on the medical definition of synesthesia – “an involuntary experience in which the stimulation of one sense cause[s] a perception in another” (Richard Cytowic qtd. in Sobchack 67) – so as to establish how film, which is a primarily audio-visual medium, can stimulate the other senses available to us.

Furthermore, the value behind reading cinema as a synesthetic experience is that these bodily reactions happen “involuntarily” and therefore bypass the gatekeeping function of cultural and cognitive frameworks embedded in our conscious minds – while still being of it (Barthes qtd. in Sobchack 60) – thereby turning our bodily reactions “potentially subversive” (67). This element of subversiveness is most useful when deploying a lived body experience to combat the circumscribing Oedipal narrative that attempts to define the female experience.

However, instead of focusing solely on the lived bodies of the spectators, this essay would also examine onscreen bodies and the screen as body. The precedence for this is already heralded in the portmanteau term coined by Sobchack because inherent in the term ‘cinesthetic’ is the blurring of boundaries between offscreen spectatorial bodies, onscreen bodies of the characters, and the screen as body (67). Furthermore, when Sobchack tries to explain her lived body experience of Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993), she describes her skin as “both mine and not mine,” “’here’ and ‘there,’” and in both the subject and object position (66). This coincides with her later explanation of the “irreducible and dynamic relational structure of reversibility and reciprocity” that exists between one’s literal and lived body and the “figural objects of bodily provocation on the screen” (79). As a further shortening of the distance between onscreen bodies of characters and offscreen bodies of spectators, Sobchack borrows from Elena del Rio to suggest that “body and image no longer function as discrete units, but as surfaces in contact” (65), thereby providing a sense of the immediate exchange that occurs between onscreen and offscreen bodies such that together with their continuous influence on each other, they also seem to share the same metaphysical space of the screen.

Further reasons for downplaying the emphasis on the lived bodies of spectators and expanding this definition to include screen bodies and screen as body, include most importantly the desire to avoid presenting an overly solipsistic argument by overemphasizing the spectatorial experience. This is seconded by how Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener in their book chapter, “Cinema as Skin – Body and Touch,” acknowledge “all positions concentrating on skin, contact, and touch… [focus] more strongly on the receiving subject than on the filmic material: the aesthetic experience becomes more important than the aesthetic object” (130-1). And this kind of emphasis on the aesthetic experience of the spectator at the expense of the aesthetic object will grossly undermine the efforts the three films mentioned above took to incorporate a phenomenological approach to the suffering of onscreen bodies.

Having argued for this essay’s particular use of Sobchack’s theory of phenomenology, one further caveat needs to be made about the nature of the monstrous women to be discussed in this essay. Unlike in Barbara Creed’s essay, “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection,” that deals mainly with the uncontrollable “generative mother seen only as the abyss, the monstrous vagina, the origin of all life threatening to re-absorb what it once birthed” (62), the female characters in the three films to be examined are all on the cusp of womanhood, and are therefore dealing with a different phase of a woman’s life cycle, separate from motherhood.

Instead these films are about female protagonists experiencing periods of great physical and emotional change hence the appropriateness in the use of the were-creature narrative, which is also about great and violent transformative moments. This is seen in how both Rosaleen in Company, and the eponymous Ginger are menarcheal women, and Irena is forced to grapple with her awakening female sexuality due to her romantic relations with and marriage to the male lead, Oliver, in Cat People. Thus what is at stake here is the refiguring of the innocence of a budding female sexuality into the body of a monstrous other used to terrorise women into fearing their own bodies. However, this essay will also suggest that these monstrous bodies on screen function as a kind of clarion call for the need for a change in the patriarchal narrative that aims to suppress and control female sexuality.

Teresa de Lauretis explains this patriarchal narrative by referencing the Oedipal myth and explaining how male-centred the myth is with Medusa and the Sphinx continuing to survive the test of time only as guests in the Oedipal narrative (579). By quoting Algirdas Julien Greimas, de Lauretis establishes that “the semantic structure of all narrative is the movement of an actant-subject toward an actant-object” (581), wherein the role of actant-object is invariably filled by woman who represents the “plot-space” of narrative completion (584). The problem arises when women become an obstacle to narrative closure by being “structurally insoluble” (589). De Lauretis explains this structural insolubility by referring to Freud’s writing on the “dark continent” of femininity, in which he describes femininity as a “riddle” and an “enigma” (580). Drawing a parallel between the “riddle of femininity” and the “riddle of the sphinx” (580-1), de Lauretis seems to suggest that if women remain an enigma they become narratively inassimilable in the Oedipal narrative and an obstacle to narrative closure. As such, the only way to circumvent this conundrum was to remove women from the equation altogether and refashion her through narrative strategies into an attainable object of desire, just as how “[Freud] first formulates – defines – the question and then answers it” (581).

The constructedness of woman is consistently represented across all three films. Oblique references to the societal machinery that aid in the narrativising of what it means to be woman are seen in the brief mention of Irena Dubrovna’s involvement in the fashion industry the first time we see her on screen watching and sketching the caged panther at the zoo looking for inspiration for her next collection in Cat People. Similar echoes of the insidiousness of this patriarchal machinery is seen in the mise en scene of Rosaleen’s room in Company which is full of the accoutrements of femininity like mirrors, make-up, dresses, magazines, dolls and doll houses. The manner in which these pieces of information are introduced – briefly and casually – and positioned such that they fade into the background of the films, allow them to form a kind of subconscious in the film text that resonates with the spectator in a way where it is both noticed and forgotten, lingering on the edge of consciousness such that this subtle foregrounding of the narrative machinery of the patriarchy turns the screen itself into a kind of cinesthetic body that does not just represent this aspect of lived reality but presents it in a kind of “ongoing present tense of sensory perception that, through technology, constitutes and enables the film for us and for itself” to be a lived reality (Sobchack, 74). The subversiveness in reproducing this lived reality comes from the knowing representation of it so it may be better deconstructed[1].

Ginger Snaps, on the other hand, offers more explicit critique of the way the patriarchal narrative molds women to fit male desire. For instance when Ginger delivers the line about how “girls can only be a slut, bitch, tease or the virgin next door,” it is directed not just at Brigitte but to the audience too. Furthermore, when the Fitzgerald sisters try and distract their mother from Ginger’s lycanthropy and the dead girl in the freezer by playing up feminine stereotypes like Ginger demanding not to be looked at because she feels “fat” and Brigitte asking their mother “what do guys want?” just as she opens the freezer to store some freshly purchased meat, degrees of interpellation amongst women start to emerge. The menarcheal maiden whose relevance to the patriarchy is only beginning to emerge is seen as not yet fully interpellated, and therefore in a position to buck against the descending constraints of the Oedipal narrative, versus the mother who has been fully inducted.

This is seen in the manner in which Pamela (Ginger’s and Brigitte’s mother) accepts these performances of femininity so unquestioningly. In Pamela, we see a woman who has become completely subsumed in the patriarchal narrative such that she appears out of touch with reality. There is a similar disconnect in the character of Rosaleen’s mother in Company who seems to have given up her power to tell stories and control her own narrative – and thereby control the image on screen – unlike Rosaleen, a menarcheal maiden, and her grandmother, the crone who has outlived her usefulness to the patriarchy, whose stories fill the runtime of Company with vividly interwoven narratives full of dramatic storytelling and visceral transformation sequences in an attempt to reclaim narratives for women.

Instead it is the direct confrontation with the lived body that brings these mother-figures back in touch with their lived reality. This is seen most clearly in Ginger Snaps, especially when Pamela’s lack of appropriate reaction to her daughters’ peculiar behaviours is juxtaposed against her husband’s, Henry’s, suspicion and horror. For instance, immediately after the sequence mentioned above where the girls seek Pamela’s advice on how to appeal to boys as a way of distracting her from finding Trina’s body that they have temporarily stored in the freezer, Pamela and Henry have the following exchange:

  • Henry: “I think they’re up to something.”
  • Pamela: “They’re just being normal teenage girls.”
  • Henry: “Then why are they suddenly so interested in what you have to say?”
  • Pamela: “Stay in your own little world, Henry. This one just confuses you.”

There are multiple shades of ‘normal’ that emerge from the above exchange. On one hand, what is considered ‘normal’ for Ginger and Brigitte is the staging of multiple, gorily made-up suicides[2] around their suburban house for a school project. On the other hand, for Pamela, “normal teenage girl” behavior is asking for advice on how to deal with boys. What is really abnormal is Pamela’s easy confusion between the two that demonstrates the high degree of anticipation Pamela feels towards fielding such questions – as if her daughters’ lives are unfolding according to a pre-existing schema. Most importantly, however, is the irony and mild-mannered tragedy of just how completely out of synch with reality Pamela is. The fact is, while a woman’s world would confuse Henry, Pamela is living a completely fictional existence written for her by the patriarchy that creates a barrier between her and her lived reality.

It is not until a later scene when Pamela and Henry discover Trina’s severed fingers in the garden that Pamela realizes what is going on. In this scene, again it is Henry who reacts immediately with a horrified exclamation when he sees the severed fingers while Pamela’s initial reaction is to wave the fingers off as props from “the girls’ death project” and chide him for being a “big baby.” However, the moment she picks up the fingers, the reaction shot of her face shows a dawning realisation that these fingers are indeed real, severed fingers. To link these two scenes back to de Lauretis’ theory about a circumscribing Oedipal narrative that aims to narrate a female experience, and Sobchack’s theory of a cinesthetic body as potentially subversive, it would seem that Pamela has been so enfolded in this Oedipal narrative that she has completely lost touch with her lived reality in comparison to Henry who has no problem interpreting the events around him because they live in a reality of patriarchal design; and it eventually comes down to visceral contact with these severed fingers to trigger a phenomenological response and realization that puts Pamela back in touch with reality, thereby snapping her out of this suffocating Oedipal narrative of suburbia and domesticity[3].

There are similar results for an array of characters across all three films where confronting monstrous bodies forces characters to engage and grapple with a lived reality that they seem to have forgotten about or been oblivious to. In Cat People, Irena is from a small Balkan village where the women turn into aggressive panther women when they experience heightened emotions or sexual arousal. Knowing this about herself, she avoids consummating her marriage to Oliver despite her love for him. However, instead of being met with patience and understanding, she is cheated on and forced to seek psychiatric help from a quack doctor whose best course of treatment for her supposed neurosis is to force himself on her in the final moments of the film, forcing her to kill him and flee to the zoo where she dies from a fatal wound she received from the doctor, and reverts to her panther form. It is only when Oliver and the other woman, Alice, see her carcass do they realize that her fear was real all along. Thus in Cat People we get a slight inflection on the idea of the Oedipal narrative because it is not just women who are circumscribed in this narrative about what it means to be woman, but men too have been fooled by this patriarchal narrative. Similarly in Company, when Rosaleen’s mother sees the silver crucifix hanging around the neck of the wolf near the end of the film, she is finally forced to acknowledge that the tales of werewolves grandmother and Rosaleen tell are not just old wives’ tales, and that that wolf before her was once her daughter.

The conflation of woman and beast in these three narratives also point towards the limited options the Oedipal narrative affords women. By having Ginger, Rosaleen and Irena be both the protagonists and antagonists of their respective narratives, these three women are forced to confront their dual and contradictory nature as “object of desire” and the “obstacle to be overcome” (de Lauretis). As such, we begin to see the Oedipal narrative start to collapse. Just as Ginger points out, women’s limited options boil down to playing the virgin or the vamp, resulting in the signs of female excesses that fail to fit into these roles being written on the body. As women who manifest masculine traits such as being sexually aggressive or having an active libido, they are given hirsute bodies, and in the case of Ginger, protuberances along her back and a false phallus in the form of a tail. As women with female excesses that defy the civilizing limits of the Oedipal narrative, they are made bestial and turned into panthers, wolves and in the case of Ginger, a pale sickly werewolf replete with extra teats along her torso.

Thus, the monstrous forms these characters take on can be considered a kind of catachresis – a “false and improper metaphor” that “forces us to confront and name a gap in language” (Sobchack 81), except that in this case it is a gap in cinematic representation. And just like de Lauretis points out, the true power of “monsters” lie in their nature as “beings awesome to behold, whose power to capture vision, to lure the gaze, is conveyed in the very etymon of the word ’monster’” (579). As such, the monstrous form of these female characters shifts the power of the gaze away from the beholder to that which is beheld. Audiences cannot help but stare, their vision “captured” against their will, thus forcing them to confront the catachresis represented by these monstrous forms. Furthermore, when we look at the etymology of the word “monster,” it goes back to the Latin forms monere and monstrum, both of which carry within them the meaning of “warning” and “portent.” Thus, the monstrous female form can be said to be subversive because it serves both to point out a gap in our representational structure when it comes to women and as a warning of the dangers of such a gap if it remains unaddressed.

The limits of the Oedipal narrative are further tested in the ends that these characters meet. When there is no other recourse but to kill off Irena and Ginger in order to achieve narrative closure, thereby turning them into tragic figures that failed to overcome their own natures, a disruption of the pleasure derived from what de Lauretis calls the “double identification” of “gaze” and “image” is created. De Lauretis debunks the false binary between “identification-with-the-look as masculine and identification-with-the-image as feminine” by pointing out “no image can be identified, or identified with, apart from the look that inscribes it as image, and vice versa” (586). As such, the female spectator must identify with both the “gaze” and the “image” – male protagonist and patriarchal conception of woman – in a “double identification” in order to derive pleasure at the movies (587), while at the same time imbibing the Oedipal narrative, assimilating it and being assimilated by it.

By reasserting women’s original status as obstacle to be overcome, which the Oedipal narrative tries to elide by turning women into objects of desire, a dissonance is created. The monstrous form that exceeds the roles set aside for women as object of desire in the patriarchal narrative, then produces a coenesthetic effect. Coenesthesia is defined as “the potential and perception of one’s whole sensorial being” and likened to the “general and open sensual condition of the child at birth” due to a “prelogical and nonhierarchical arrangement of the senses” (Sobchack 68-9). This would suggest that when audiences are confronted with a scene so drastically different from what they are accustomed to, a coenesthetic effect can be achieved because in seeing something they have never seen before, the scene would have a horizontalising effect on all the senses as the audience tries to make sense of what they are looking at.

For example, in Ginger’s final moments, her monstrous form is shrouded in chiaroscuro. The same thick strip of white light across her full breast and the site of penetration with a long carving knife also highlights the unusual choice of having a pale, mostly hairless and clearly gendered look for the beast. The coenesthetic effect of this serves to defamiliarise audience’s popular preconceptions of werewolves as physically imposing, dark-furred and male, hence forcing them to read the image and the werewolf narrative anew, as an extended metaphor for the biological transformations women have to face during puberty. Biological changes that are horrific enough in their own right but further exacerbated by an Oedipal narrative that puts women out of synch with their own bodies as seen in how Ginger’s growing monstrosity is closely marked by her refashioning of her public image to match the mold of male desire.

Similar coenesthetic effects are achieved in the transformation sequences in Company and while these transformation sequences happen to male werewolves in the film, they come to bear on the final image we have of Rosaleen as a fully transformed wolf if we read the image of the wolf with the silver crucifix as a narrative image. A “narrative image” is defined as a “the join[ing] of image and story, the interlocking of visual and narrative registers effected by the cinematic apparatus of the look” (de Lauretis 584). Thus, even though we are not shown the rending of flesh and the tearing of skin in Rosaleen’s transformation, we are conscious and aware of it because of the earlier scenes in the film. Perhaps the decision to omit an image of a skinless woman comes down to how “culturally taboo [it is] because, historically and artistically, the female is represented by her skin” (Esaesser and Hagener 137), so perhaps the filmmakers thought a skinless female character might be too anti-Oedipal, resulting in a narrative of unpleasure which would run counter to de Lauretis’ sensible call for a “women’s cinema [that] must embody the working through of desire: such an objective demands the use of the entertainment film” (577), if one aims to get one’s message about the need for change in the Oedipal narrative out into the world.

As a way of closing this essay while taking a long view of the future as to what these films can mean for women’s cinema, this essay would like to invoke Béla Balázs’ theory of physiognomy in his essay, “The Face of Man” while doing a close reading of the transformation sequences in Company. From “The Face of Man,” Balázs argues that when looking at a face we recognize “not a figure of flesh and bone, but an expression… emotions, moods, intentions and thoughts,” all of which are elements that exist outside of physical space (131), thereby turning the physiognomy of the human face into an abstract understood in a different “dimension” (131).

This understanding of the innate readability of the human face is problematized in Company when a major transformation sequence contains a transforming character tearing off his face piece by piece. Due to the clear graphic matches between shots of the transforming werewolf’s face and the intercutting with close-ups of the female face in the reaction shots, the spectator experiences the presence and absence of the human face simultaneously. However, by the end of the sequence, what is left in the absence of a human face on the denuded face of the werewolf, is the abstract dimension that Balázs talks about. Moreover, without a face as a focal point, there is a horizontalizing of the significance of face and body of the monster. Thus, instead of containing “expression” this dimension is suddenly emptied of meaning and becomes a space outside lived reality for the negotiation of possible new readings of the human face and body.

It is possible to extend this a little bit further by considering that this “other dimension” that Balázs talks about however, is not a free-floating dimension. Instead it bears a great resemblance to Sobchack’s lived body of the spectator because as mentioned at the start of this essay, the lived body of the spectator is both the site where “literal sense” of films is made through our powers of perception, and “[figurative] sense” or meaning of them is made too (58-9). As such, even as the screen on which these fantastic and horrific bodies are projected seems to provide the patriarchy with a kind of barrier behind which all the excesses of femaleness can take place without ever touching them, the lived body which is caught in a “chiasmatic relationship of perception and expression” with the screen (Sobchack 60), turns the screen into a permeable membrane, and carries within it the continuous negotiation of female sexuality posed by these monstrous onscreen bodies.

Works Cited

Balázs, Béla. “The Face of Man.” Braudy, Leo and Marshall Cohen. Film Theory & Criticism. 7th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 275-281.

Cat People. By Val Lewton and DeWitt Bodeen. Dir. Jacques Tourneur. Perf. Simone Simon, Kent Smith and Jane Randolph. 1942.

Creed, Barbara. “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection.” Screen: Oxford Journals (1986): 44-70.

de Lauretis, Teresa. “Desire in Narrative.” Corrigan, Timothy, Meta Mazaj and White Patricia. Critical Visions in Film Theory. Boston; New York: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2011. 575-593.

Elsaesser, Thomas and Malte Hagener. Film Theory: An Introduction Through the Senses. New York; London: Routledge, 2015.

Ginger Snaps. By Karen Walton and John Fawcett. Dir. John Fawcett. Perf. Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle. 2000.

Sobchack, Vivian. “What My Fingers Knew.” Sobchack, Vivian. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 2004. 53-84.

The Company of Wolves. By Angela Carter. Dir. Neil Jordan. Perf. Angela Lansbury, Sarah Patterson and Stephen Rea. 1984.

[1] This much can be said for Company at least given that the script was written by Angela Carter, author of The Bloody Chamber and The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, and a known feminist who wrote extensively about the need to reclaim narratives for women.

[2] Death by Suburbia: death by white picket fence, death by lawnmower, death by garage door, etc.

[3] There’s even this wonderful image of Pamela putting the severed fingers inside a Tupperware so she might bring them to school to confront her daughters with that becomes a succinct visual argument about the encircling narrative of domesticity that contains the horror of the body.