Friday, October 23, 2009

Notes on a Photograph: A German World War II Soldier

10-20-2009 11;25;02AM (2) Snapshot of a World War II German Soldier?, circa 1939-45

I bought this photograph on eBay quite by chance. Something about it struck me both formally and emotionally; it pierced me as Roland Barthes would say. The small black and white snapshot measuring 3.5”x2.5” came from Germany and according to the seller, it is a depiction of a German soldier during World War II. It seems a plausible conclusion as the seller had many other images for sale which were clear pictures of German soldiers during the war; I am, therefore, assuming that this photograph is indeed of that period and shows a German soldier.

Also, in his listings, the seller has a prominent and interesting disclaimer which states:

I certify that the contemporary and military historical items I offer from the 1933 to 1945 period are intended purely for the purposes of public education, to defend against unconstitutional and anticonstitutional activities, to be used for scientific or art history research, for explanations or correspondent reporting of the events during this period, and for research of military history and the study of uniforms, as spelled out in Paragraphs 86 and 86a of the Penal Code. By placing a bid on artifacts that have the emblem of the Third Reich featured, the buyer pledges that he is acquiring these items solely for historical or scientific purposes or because of reasons stated above and that he will not use them in any manner as propaganda, particularly per meaning of Paragraphs 86 and 86a of the Penal Code !

More than 50 years later, the legacy and fear of the Nazis is still quite evident in Germany and the law attempts to prevent its reemergence. I suppose even images of that distant past can be dangerous when used as propaganda. On the other hand, these photographs testify to the reality of the events of the war such as the Holocaust and the other atrocities committed by the German Army especially in the East (the That-has-been of Barthes). Despite the photographic evidence, these events are on some level still quite unfathomable and unimaginable.

Yet, how can one even conceptualize the Holocaust beyond the photographic remains? As Adorno said, “After the Holocaust, it is barbaric to write poetry.” Adorno realized on some level that the Holocaust can never be represented because it is incomprehensible and no depiction, photographic or otherwise, can embody the sheer evil and horror of it. Of course, there have been many representations of the Holocaust which serve to bear witness to this tragedy despite perhaps the inadequacy of their result. Despite Adorno’s warning silence cannot be the only response to such inhumanity.

My digression into the politics of representation in regard to World War II is important I believe because of my relationship to the photograph of the German soldier. It goes beyond the image’s history and specificity to a place of desire which is at first physical and then pre-Oedipal: beyond language, culture and history. (For a greater discussion of desire, photography and Roland Barthes see my earlier posts The Great Within and The Great Within Part 2.) This dynamic makes me uneasy. Before exploring the image in depth, I need to acknowledge the troubling fact that a picture of a World War II German soldier has fostered my desire.

The image depicts a male figure in an enclosed, cramped space. He is seated and hunched over with his elbows on his knees. His right arm hangs between his legs and his left arm crosses over to his right elbow. His head hangs down so that his face is obscured in shadow. Only his left ear is visible. The face is further hidden by the figure’s hair which is quite long in front, but quite short and cropped at the neck.

The photograph has an almost abstract quality. It is a complex arrangement of black, white and grey shapes which cohere to form the image. This formal abstraction underlines and enhances the enigmatic nature of the photograph. Is the figure in pain, afraid, depressed, or simply just physically exhausted? Is his somatic disposition a reaction to the war in general, the loss of a comrade, the loss of a battle, the loss of a loved one or the rejection of a lover? The viewer can never really know the answer. The photograph is intimate, but not explicit. I am witness to a private and vulnerable moment. The subject is unaware of my presence. I not only behold him, but I apprehend him.

Yet, ultimately the photograph is opaque. All the spectator can ever know in regard to this image is the Barthesian noeme of photography: That-has-been. This man existed and he assumed this physical position with his head bent and his elbows on his knees in an enclosed space with a small window or mirror above him at a particular moment in the past. The viewer cannot learn anything further from the representation itself. (Indeed, my knowledge of it as a picture of a World War II German soldier is anecdotal from the seller of the photograph. It is not inherent within the representation. But, I cannot unremember this fact when I gaze upon the picture and hence, my unease.)

As a spectator, I am not a neutral subject. This photograph touched me, pierced me. It awakens my desire and (for me at least) it is an erotic image. The locus of my desire is the exposed neck of the soldier and its closely cropped hair. It is a shining white, triangular shape that is almost at the center of the photograph. It conjures up scenes of kissing, biting, nuzzling. It engenders a physical response in me. It is the Barthesian punctum of the image.

10-20-2009 11;25;02AM (2)

Another part of this somatic response is precipitated by the closely shorn hair at the neck of the figure. It invites an imagination of touch. It reveals my own fascination with the hairline of a man. The image becomes more than merely an expression of That-has-been, it is transformed (in my own great within) into an erotic photograph.

Regarding the erotic picture, Barthes states: “…the erotic photograph…(and this is its very condition), does not make the sexual organs into a central object; it may very well not show them at all; it takes the spectator outside its frame and it is there that I animate the photograph and it animates me. “ The image of the soldier is set within a restricted space; it is on one level claustrophobic. The soldier has little room to move within the architecture. The photograph is closed, restricted, bound within its frame.

Yet, above the soldier’s head is a small window or perhaps a mirror. Its view or reflection is unseen. Whether a mirror or window, it is a way out of the space for the viewer. It is my escape outside the frame where I animate the photograph and it animates me, where I revel in the smooth, white neck of the figure and his magnificent hairline.

10-20-2009 11;25;02AM (2)

The imagistic desire engendered by the German soldier photograph goes beyond mere sexual gratification. That is the function and purpose of the pornographic image. While still physically stimulating, the erotic photograph can go beyond simply sex and propose a desire that is pre-Oedipal, beyond language, culture and history. But, in the end, history always frames the image and traps it, whether it is the actual moment of the photograph or the historical position of the viewer. I will always see this photograph as a picture of a World War II German soldier and that makes me a bit uncomfortable even while it simultaneously provides me with a momentary bliss.

While Waiting For The Train…


This morning I was in Penn Station waiting to board the train I take to work. The train was delayed once again due to yet another amorphous Amtrak problem. Delays are a usual occurrence with the train to New Jersey, so while waiting I was looking at people arriving into the city, seeing who was cute and who was not in order to pass the time.

When I am in public, I try to be invisible and go unnoticed. I look but I rarely interact. I am sort of like a flâneur without the sartorial display who wanders the city, observing, scrutinizing, participating in urban life while simultaneously separating myself from it. I adopt a "blasé attitude" in the sense of the sociologist Georg Simmel.

Then, in an instant, a man wearing a mint green, periwinkle blue and pink plaid shirt and a bright pink fleece vest suddenly entered my world. "Kelly is that you?" Panic. "It's J_____ W_____" After my momentary confusion, I recognized the intruder. Of course, J_____ W_____. We went to school together from the 3rd grade through high school. We talked briefly discussing today's train delay, I told him I live in Chelsea, he told me he lives in Chatham, New Jersey.

Yet while we are talking, I am not really there still dazed by his sudden presence. Instead I am remembering J_____ in 5th or 6th grade as the leader of a posse of boys who stole hood ornaments off of cars. They then hide the ornaments in a box in the woods of the local arboretum. I know this because at some point I was asked to join the gang of petty car vandals. I saw the box in the woods filled with the booty of their exploits. In order to join the group I would have to steal an ornament too and thus secure entrance into this desperate, yet privileged suburban band of 10 or 11 year olds.

I didn't join the posse. I was scared, not of stealing, but of the boys in the group. At that point in my life, my relationship to other boys was changing. Since the age of 5, I had felt though didn't quite understand my attraction to other boys, yet I was still friends with them. Then, at that crucial almost puberty moment, it seemed that the gulf between me and them widened into a vast chasm. It was as if they had a secret handshake among themselves that I did not know and I could not figure out. I had realized my difference. And looking back at that moment in Penn Station, I thought that perhaps if I had joined J_____ W_____'s suburban hoodlums, I would have learned the hidden code and entered the rarified realm of sanctioned masculinity.

J_____ W_____ shook my hand firmly and said goodbye and added, "You look exactly the same" which was a nice compliment and a testament to my use of organic facial products for over 20 years and the fact that I haven't really been in the sun since the age of 16.

As he walked away, I wondered if the hood ornaments were still buried somewhere in the woods of my hometown. I also thought for a brief moment that perhaps J_____ was himself a 'mo like me (but not like me). He was after all wearing a bright pink fleece vest that coordinated with his multi-colored plaid shirt. Is that just suburban preppy or could it be suburban homo? Maybe J_____ lives in Chatham with his partner (both of them straight acting of course) in a house with a white picket fence and a little Chinese girl named _____. They decided to live out the dream of consumer culture and have everything that heterosexuals have, even marriage, only with more style (or perhaps not when one wears a pink fleece.) As Leo Bersani says, "Sex between 2 men is not inherently the basis for a radical political movement."

My imagined life of J_____ W_____ brought a smile to my face, but I was a bit melancholy as well. Even now, I still don't know the secret handshake that other men whether straight or gay seem to possess and use to great effect. I often feel like the Other's Other. This morning, in an instant, I remembered a bit of my past and realized at the same time, how that past is in many ways still my present. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Polar Bear Desire

 10-22-2009 10;04;19AM (2) Polar Bear in the London Zoo, circa 1919

This girl has got a smile
That can make me cry
This girl just burns with love
She's burning burning deep outside
Night time night time
Sets my house on fire
I'll turn into the melting man
I'll lose my life
To feel I feel desire
Oh I should feel
Like a polar bear
Like a polar bear
It's impossible
She flies outside this cage
Singing girl-mad words
I keep her dark thoughts deep inside
As black as stone
As mad as birds

Wild wild wild
And never turn away
Sends me all her love
She sends me everything
She sends me everywhere
Oh I could be
A polar bear
Oh I could be
A polar bear
But it's impossible

I try to talk
The sky goes red
I forget
So fill my head
With some of this
Some of that
Some of every word she said
Oh I should be
A polar bear
But it's impossible

-Bird Mad Girl, The Cure, 1984

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Silver Desire: A Gorham Spooner 1915

gorham1915spoonholderI recently acquired a sterling silver spooner manufactured by Gorham in 1915. Between 1868 and 1933 Gorham used letters and symbols to date code their silver holloware. On this spooner along with the usual Gorham marks of a lion, anchor and G and the pattern number is an engraved sword that dates the piece to 1915. The piece measures 8.25” from handle to handle, 3” at the highest point and 1.5” at its widest point. It is designed to hold about a dozen teaspoons.gorham1915spoonholder5The style of the piece is in part a reaction to the overly elaborate styles of the late Victorian period such as Aesthetic ware. There is something classic almost academic about this piece of silver. In turn, it has a faint echo of the Rococo in the curve of its handle and the cut out swirls on the side of the piece. This spooner possesses an understated elegance and sophistication.

I deeply enjoy these funny, but useful silver table implements meant to hold flatware. The Gorham spooner was probably used on the breakfast or tea table to hold teaspoons for a family and its guests. Spooners were out of fashion by the 1930’s.

The piece was owned by MSWgorham1915spoonholder4 , now lost to history. In 1915 the Great War was ravaging Europe and in the United States women still did not have the right to vote. Did MSW revel in their upper middle class life filled with Gorham sterling and perhaps a smattering of servants who not only set the table for breakfast or tea, but polished the spooner keeping it shiny and bright? Was MSW conscious of the history around them, the Great War, the Suffragette Movement etc.? Or were they mere players in a growing consumer capitalism who submitted to the dominant ideologies of the day?

And what is my relationship to this device of sterling silver? Why does it thrill me so and make me filled with anticipation to use it at my next dessert soiree or small buffet? What fantasies am I living out in the great within of my apartment?

In large part, as I have posted before, I am believe the piece possesses a patina of history which is simultaneously physical (the actual silver surface, its traces of use and polish), factual but unknown (Who owned it? How did it eventually enter my collection? How did it survive?) and fantasmatic (Who loved it? Why do I love it? My feelings when I use it?). In the end, it is invested with a certain energy. It becomes in the best sense of the word, a fetish.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Nautilus as Model: Jules Verne, Film, Imperialism, and the Spectator’s Gaze

nautilus Engraving of Captain Nemo 1870

[A]ll the ships in Jules Verne are perfect cubby-holes, and the vastness of their circumnavigation further increases the bliss of their closure, the perfection of their inner humanity. The Nautilus, in this regard, is the most desirable of all caves: the enjoyment of being enclosed reaches its paroxysm when, from the bosom of this unbroken inwardness, it is possible to watch, through a large window-pane, the outside vagueness of the waters, and thus define in a single act, the inside by means of its opposite- Roland Barthes, Mythologies


Original Map Illustration French Edition Around the World in Eighty Days

The hero of Jules Verne’s classic Around the World in Eighty Days embodied all the self-assuredness and extravagance of the British Empire.- Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space


Early English Locomotive 1829

The modern period had a new sense of distance, created by technology and mediated by urbanism and imperialism.- Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space

forbiddencity1a Forbidden City Snapshot circa 1920

duane-hanson-the-touristsDuane Hanson Tourists 1970

The subjective effects of the tourist are not unlike those of the cinema spectator. Tourism produces an escape from boundaries, it legitimates the transgression of one’s static, stable or fixed location. The tourist simultaneously embodies both the position of presence and absence, of here and elsewhere, of avowing one’s curiousity and disavowing one’s daily life.- Anne Friedberg, Window Shopping

gerome Jean-Leon Gerome The Slave Market 1866

[F]rom 1815 to 1914 European direct colonial dominion expanded from about 35% of the earth’s surface to about 85% of it- Edward Said, Orientalism

I have juxtaposed these five quotes in order to discuss in a fragmentary way the relationship between film and spectator that is delimited by Roland Barthes’ understanding of the famous Verne submarine, the Nautilus. The posted images are a complementary visual text that parallels, intersects, enhances, imagines and provokes this written text. The fictive Nautilus [in this post], like cinema, is a technological device which functions to “define, in a single act, the inside by means of its opposite” in terms of sex, gender, sexuality and race, particularly in relation to European [and American] imperialistic practice beginning in the late nineteenth century and the rise of the modern city.

The European conceptualization of the Other both physically and psychologically served to define and secure the fictive and real borders of Europe itself [and later the United States]. This conceptualization occurred on many levels: academic disciplines such as Orientalism, tourism, World Fairs, art and of course cinema. It is important to note how a technology such as film (as well as the rise of other technologies that collapsed and changed the notion of space, time and distance) is deployed not only to reterritorialize the world such that Europe was able to control 85% of the globe by 1914, but also to reconstruct the psyche, enacting such binarisms as European/Other, white/black, man/woman, masculine/feminine, heterosexual/homosexual, etc.

bar Postcard circa 1914

In conjunction with imperialism, the rise of the modern city served to deploy and enforce this binary system in which the first term was/is always privileged over the second. The new urban space allowed, for example, a burgeoning culture of same-sex desire that in turn became a studied object for eradication by by the medical and legal systems as well as by mass culture. But, this attempt ultimately failed despite its real life consequences and dire punishments and enabled the formation of a “reverse discourse” in the words of Foucault. In this way, the homosexual who became a species in the late nineteenth century used this negative discourse to foster and produce an identity and a community of same-sex desire. This reverse discourse finally exploded into a movement of visible liberation with the Stonewall Riot of 1969.

Stonewall_Inn_September_1969_%28Photo_from_New_York_Public_Library%29 Diana Davies Stonewall Inn September 1969

eskimo “Esquimaux” at the Chicago World’s Fair 1893

opium Opium Den Concession Chicago World’s Fair 1893

To further the proposition of the Nautilus model, I want to critically examine Anne Friedberg’s notions of the mobilized gaze. Her idea seems to counter the hegemony of the cinematic device in favor of a kind of freedom and mobility for the spectator. While I believe it is important to dismantle notions of a universal [male] spectator for forms of spectatorship defined by historical context, subject position and agency, Friedberg’s analogy between the tourist and the film spectator as both possessing a mobilized gaze ignores or elides the context of imperialism. One must ask who possessed the ability to “escape from boundaries” and participate in a “transgression” of “fixed location?” Friedberg does not consider tourism as a decidedly modern Western practice whether through actual travel or visits to World’s Fairs where native peoples were put on display. The practice of tourism is aligned with imperialism. Both conceptualized the Other as a means “to define, in a single act [or gaze], the inside by means of its opposite.” The mobility of the tourist is constituted by the fixity of the Other.

Judy_Garland_at_Greek_Theater Judy Garland 1957

Within cinema, the spectator is physically immobile in a darkened space before the screen; however, the film itself through its imagery, narrative and sound enables this corporeal fixity to be displaced by a psychic movement. The viewer is able to inhabit other bodies, practice other pleasures, experience other places, cultures and events. Yet, what are the limits and consequences of this psychic freedom? Does film truly enable the transgression of identity and allow a fluid psychic play? From my own perspective, [mainstream] film is what Teresa di Lauretis terms a social technology which functions to define, maintain and reassert binary oppositions such as man/woman, masculine/feminine, heterosexual/homosexual, white/non-white and so on. Film serves to secure the first term of these oppositions in a position of power and often presents such categories as natural and eternal rather than constructed within culture.

However, while acknowledging the role of film in the production and maintenance of this hierarchical binary regime. one must be attuned to the gaps and fissures which are present within many cinematic texts. These sites are spaces where viewers who are conceptualized as Other within the filmic world such as lesbians, straight women, gay men etc. can reconfigure the text and derive pleasure from it even while it seeks to foster their submission within a binary system.

computer One of the first personal computers

The rise of the internet in the late 20th century has caused a greater collapse of space, time and distance. Information and images are instantaneous, prolific, infinite and unmediated. The [real] body is effaced while the web provides an inexhaustible supply of ever new bodies engaged in an infinite variety of practices. The internet has also precipitated a change in viewership as well. Pictures and text can be viewed anywhere at any time in almost any place. The spectator is no longer fixed within a darkened space. The world has become flat [again]. How does this technological innovation affect the Nautilus model? Is a hierarchical binary system of sex, gender, sexuality, class, race etc. still at work? Or does this new technology allow one to transgress this regime? Is the internet a new Nautilus? I don’t know.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Masculinity as Masquerade and Its Disavowal in Tea and Sympathy

Introduction: A Love Story?

In a letter to the director Vincente Minnelli, Bob Anderson, the playwright of Tea and Sympathy and eventually the screenwriter of the 1956 film version of the play, writes:

I’ve always seen the play as basically a love story…a love story which never would have a happy ending except for the persecution of Tom. That is the irony of the story…Tom is persecuted in a sense for his love of Laura, but the persecution brings about the fulfillment of the love.

In the letter, Anderson also addresses further meanings and issues considered by the play such as the nature of “manliness”, the relationship between the society and the individual who is understood as different, the need to respect differences of such individuals and the obligation of people to help those individuals who are persecuted for their difference.

Yet, for Anderson the central theme of the play and film is its “love story” which seems to be an odd conclusion in regard to the actual events of the story. The film centers on Tom Lee, an eighteen year old boy, attending an all male boarding school. Because Tom does not conform to the social standard of masculinity, he is perceived as a homosexual within the homosocial space of the school. This perception is the reason for his persecution, not his crush on the wife of his headmaster, Laura Reynolds.

The relationship between Tom and Laura is difficult to characterize and not really a love story, Although he clearly has a crush on the older woman, the film seems to signify Laura more strongly as a replacement for Tom’s absent mother. On the other hand, however, Laura herself appears to develop a growing sexual interest in Tom not only because of his resemblance to her dead first husband, but also because of the growing distance between herself and her husband, Bill Reynolds.

The role of Laura as a mother figure is most clearly seen in her handling of the unmasculine character of Tom. Though respecting Tom’s difference Laura attempts continually throughout the film to prove Tom’s masculinity not only to Tom himself, but also to the larger society once it begins to persecute Tom for that difference. She is like a mother who consoles her teased son and simultaneously seeks to have him gain acceptance. Yet, these early attempts fail, finally causing Laura to engage in sex with Tom in order to prove to him his masculinity and heterosexuality as well as confirm it for the audience. Thus, for Anderson to call the film a love story is to in actuality mask and eventually resolve through a heterosexual union the crisis of masculinity depicted within Tea and Sympathy.

Through a Judith Butler Lens

The sexual intercourse between Tom and Laura is the only way for the film to reestablish the proper gender order which has been disrupted within the story. As Judith Butler states:

The institution of a complusory and naturalized heterosexuality requires and regulates gender as a binary relation in which the masculine term is differentiated from a feminine term, and this differentiation is accomplished through the practice of heterosexual desire. The act of differentiating the two oppositional moments of the binary results in a consolidation of each term, the respective internal coherence of sex, gender and desire.(Gender Trouble, p. 22-23)

By practicing heterosexual desire, Tom and Laura reinscribe gender as a binary system between masculine and feminine. The binary system of gender is challenged from the beginning of the film by the very actions of Tom which do not conform to the masculine term of the opposition. By reasserting the difference between the two terms of the binary system, their sexual union reconstructs the “coherence of sex, gender, desire” for Tom. In other words, his biological sex as male requires and institutes a masculine gender position and a desire which is heterosexual and directed towards women.

Prior to the intimacy with Laura, Tom’s gender position is incoherent in the chain of sex, gender and desire because it was in dissonant opposition to both the first and the third term of the chain. Although the film reauthorizes the coherence and continuity of the chain in its conclusion, it continuously disrupts the second term of the equation by positioning masculinity as a masquerade rather than a logical and natural result of biological sex. Butler states, “Masquerade may be understood as the performative production of a sexual ontology, an appearing that makes itself convincing as a being.”(Gender Trouble, p. 47) The practice of the masquerade (certain acts, gestures and enactments which are culturally proscribed for a certain gender) produce that gendered body (and individual). This body (and individual) does not exist separately from the masquerade which realizes it. As Butler states, “That the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological nature apart from the various acts which constitute its reality.”(Gender Trouble, p.136.)

Yet, the function of the masquerade is not to signal its own construction, but to mask that construction and present itself as a natural “being”. In other words, the masquerade helps to foreground the internal coherence and logical sequence of sex, gender and desire. Tea and Sympathy on the other hand signals gender as a construction by disrupting the cohesiveness of this sequence. While positing this disruption at the outset, it seeks to ultimately disavow it by depicting gender as having an ontological status, as being a direct and automatic expression of biological sex. It achieves this desire and disavowal at the conclusion through the union of Tom and Laura which reaffirms the sequence of male, masculinity, heterosexual.

Tom, Laura and Judith Butler in the Garden

The first several scenes of the flashback in Tea and Sympathy concern the burgeoning relationship between Laura and Tom. As Tom sits at his dorm window singing a song about the joys and sorrows of love, he simultaneously gazes at Laura who is working in the garden below. When Tom sees that Laura needs help with her seedlings, he jumps from the window to give her assistance. In the ensuing conversation between them, Tom relates to Laura his knowledge of gardening, his love of flowers and the memories of his own garden he once tended as a child. Laura expresses her lack of skill in reference to gardening despite Tom’s praise for her efforts. However, Tom suggests to Laura to plant some forget-me-nots in order to introduce blue into her garden.

What is the relationship between the actions of Tom within this sequence and his readability within a binary system of gender and sexuality? In her book Gender Trouble, Butler attempts to answer this question by considering gender to be performative. She asserts that gender signs,

acts, gestures and enactments are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means. That the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality.(Gender Trouble, p. 136.)

Thus, instead of seeing these acts as merely expressions of a particular gender, Butler suggest that gender is constituted in these very acts which are always understood to be the result of gender rather than the means of its production. For Butler, these acts produce a masculine or feminine identity which is comprehended within culture as a direct and natural representation of the already existent biological sex of an individual.

The concept of performativity according to Butler not only suggests the notion of gender as a performance, but also, more importantly as it relates to forms of speech which bring about what they name. For example, in the wedding ceremony, the performative, “I pronounce you…” constitutes the relationship that it names and sets that relationship in motion. The initiatory performative, “It’s a girl” or “It’s a boy” begins:

the process by which a certain girling (or boying) is compelled, the term or rather, its symbolic power governs the formation of a corporeally enacted femininity (or masculinity). This is a “girl” (or a “boy”), however, who is compelled to “cite” the norm in order to qualify and remain a viable subject. Femininity (or masculinity) is the forcible citation of a norm, one whose complex historicity is indissociable from relations of discipline, regulation and punishment…this citation of the gender norms is necessary to qualify as a “one” where subject-formation is dependent on the prior operation of legitimating gender norms.(“Critically Queer” pp. 22-23)

Within the early sequence in the garden as well as his failure during the bonfire scene and his impotent encounter with the prostitute, Tom does not successfully cite from the norm of masculinity. His interest in flowers and gardening announces his difference from the masculine standard and performatively constitutes him as something other than a masculine subject.

Tom, Laura and Judith Butler at the Beach

The film underscores this reading in the beach scene in which Laura’s husband Bill responds to a quiz that measures masculinity while horsing around with the boys who live in his house. When asked which object can be described as beautiful, Bill chooses “girls” from the three possible answers of flowers, girls and music. Moreover, when asked to pick the activity which corresponds to the word fun, Bill answers “hunting” from the three choices of reading, hunting and gardening. Bill cites correctly from the masculine norm.

However, Tom would fail such a quiz since prior to this scene he has been associated with all the answers except girls and hunting. Thus, the failure of Tom to quote from the correct gender norm renders him (at least initially) as unintelligible as a “one” with the rigidly ordered gender system of the 1950’s. His deeds interrupt the coherent, linear chain of sex, gender and desire because his actions fracture the second term of the equation. As the film illustrates, he is punished for his lack of success by other men. If he is not a man, then what is he? What is his subject position within the gender system of the 1950’s?

To answer this question, Tea and Sympathy deploys a performative utterance. During the beach scene, Tom is called “sister-boy” for the first time in the film. This designation is prompted by the observations of two of Tom’s classmates. As they traverse some rocks to reclaim a lost football, they observe Tom sitting with three faculty wives including Laura. Spatially, the film separates the faculty wives and Tom from Bill and the other boys by a large ridge of rocks. This spatial division acts to visually enforce a rigid separation of gender as well as to indicate that Tom has placed himself on the wrong side of the division. In placing himself on the feminine side of the beach and performatively producing himself as feminine through the act of sewing, Tom disturbs the binary gender regime. He looks biologically like a male, yet he assumes a feminine gender position. In response to this disturbance, Tom must be labeled “sister-boy” in order to realign the system.

By demonstrating his knowledge of sewing and cooking, Tom once again does not measure up to a the masculine standard as in his earlier interaction with Laura in the garden. Still at this point, before the uttering of “sister-boy”, the actions and interests of Tom are not readable by the other characters. One of the faculty wives responding to Tom’s ability to sew and cook says, “You’ll make some girl a good wife.” Tom cannot be understood as masculine because he does not perform actions that constitute him as such. Instead, he can only be gendered as a woman with the culture of the 1950’s. The inability to read Tom in terms of gender as well as his lack of adherence to specific gender norms serves to problematize the link between biological sex and gender.

Responding to the dissonance within the gender system, Laura first attempts to mitigate the implications of Tom’s sewing ability by stating that her husband Bill learned to sew buttons in the army. In a strange way, her statement attempts to link the act of sewing with the particularly male and masculine culture of the army in order to reconceive Tom as a masculine subject. Moreover, acting like his mother, Laura tells Tom to go and join the other boys on the other side of the rocks in order for him to cite from the masculine standard and thus reinscribe the disrupted gender system.

Yet, Laura’s advice comes too late. When Tom goes to the other side of the rocks, he is ignored by the other boys and subsequently leaves the scene. The two boys who observed him with the faculty wives relate their information to the others and it is at this point that Tom is called “sister-boy”. The performative, “sister-boy”, finally makes sense of Tom as a subject. In its conflation of masculine and feminine, the term designates Tom as a homosexual. During the 1950’s homosexuality was perceived as gender inversion, the soul of a woman in the body of a man. By marking Tom as a homosexual, his actions become intelligible to both the characters in the film and to the audience as well.

More importantly, it serves to reconfirm traditional masculinity by identifying as “other” those men who do not adhere to its precepts. Tom must be realized as different, as a homosexual in order for the masculinity of the other men in the film to remain natural and unproblematic. To accept Tom as a man would undermine the masculinity of the other male characters because it would effectively disrupt the notion of gender as an automatic and logical expression of biological sex.

Although constituting Tom as “sister-boy” reestablishes a binary system of gender, it is important to look again at the interaction of Laura and Tom before the uttering of the term. Within this relationship, Tom is not only ambiguous to the audience in terms of gender, but also to Laura as well who attempts to force and discipline him into quoting from the correct norm of masculinity as she does in the beach scene. Moreover, the sequence of scenes prior to the one on the beach serves to foreground gender as a masquerade which must be subsequently disavowed by the film. The designation of Tom as “sister-boy” is one example of this disavowal, the final and ultimate one being the heterosexual union between Tom and Laura at the conclusion of the film.

Tom is a Fake

When Tom and Laura leave the garden and enter the house to have tea, Laura asks him about the song he was singing at his window. Tom explains the lyrics of the song “The Grief of Love.” The song states, “The joys of love are but a moment long. The grief of love endures forever.” Laura inquires if Tom really knows the grief of love because he sang the song with such expression. Tom replies that he has not actually experienced either the happiness or the sorrow of love. To his answer, Laura responds, “You’re a fake.” What exactly does her response mean?

On the narrative level, Laura responds to the falsity of the rendition of the song which Tom sings at the window. Yet, could one additionally see Laura as responding to the other actions of Tom which do not constitute him as a “real” man, but rather as a fake one because his actions manifest him as such? Butler states, “Gender is a repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being.”(Gender Trouble, p. 33.) Because he does not quote from the masculine standard, the gestures, acts and enactments of Tom do not combine to create a “real” man who is intelligible to Laura as a masculine subject. In a sense, Tom is unnatural because he does conform to orthodox masculinity in terms of love. He has not yet expressed the proper desire for a biological male, nor the proper gender. At the end of film, the heterosexual union between Laura and Tom reestablishes a “correct” gender system which is at this moment in the film still in doubt. When he has sex with Laura, Tom becomes a “natural” man and is no longer a fake.

The scene in the house further underlines the importance of the third term of the sex/gender/desire equation as being vital to the coherence of the whole equation itself. When Tom says he is taking someone to the dance (thus, implying the right desire and announcing his first correct citation from the masculine norm by Tom in the film), Laura responds enthusiastically, “Well there!” It is as if this act by Tom mitigates or erases his other deeds. This deed confirms his masculinity.

However, Laura’s response is too sudden because instead of escorting a woman of his own age to the dance, Tom is in fact taking Laura as his date. Since she is already coded as a mother-figure for Tom, his citation becomes false. Still, however, this exchange seems to foreshadow the conclusion of the film in which Tom becomes a man by engaging in sex with Laura as well as to underlie the centrality of heterosexuality for the maintenance of a binary gender system.

In describing Tom as a fake, Laura suggests that he is somehow deceptive. According to Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Hearts of Men, deception was a central fear within the ideology of gender and sexuality in the fifties, particularly in regard to homosexuality. In the 1950’s a “real man” was supposed to embody the breadwinner ethic. Society expected a man to marry and economically support his wife and children. To deviate from this prescribed path was to be judged less than a man. Homosexuality was used as a pejorative term to label those men who failed to uphold this ethic. This is not surprising because during this period homosexuality was interpreted as a form of gender inversion. If a man was unwilling to marry and sustain his wife and subsequent children, he was somehow not really a man, but a woman. As Ehrenreich states, “Since a man couldn’t actually become a woman….heterosexual failures and overt homosexuals could only be understood as living in a state of constant deception. And that was perhaps the most despicable thing about them: they looked like men, but they weren’t really men.”(Hearts of Men, p. 26.)

In perceiving homosexual men as deceptive, the fixed and stable relationship between sex, gender and desire was essentially ruptured because a man could look like a “real” man but not actually be one. Homosexuality problematized the idea of gender as a natural and logical expression of biological sex. In the understanding of the 1950’s, Tom is seen as practicing a form of deception. By labeling him “sister-boy” the film acknowledges this deception, ultimately revealing his “fakeness” as well as producing him as something else in order to preserve and sustain the concept of the “real man”.

Tom and the Masculine Masquerade

Still, however, by disrupting the stable connection between gender and sex, Tea and Sympathy acknowledges gender as a masquerade, as a social construction rather than a set of proper characteristics, emotions and actions inherent to either a man or a woman. The actions of Tom reveal the constructedness of the masquerade because it signals it as an “appearing that (sometimes does not make) itself convincing as a being.” This idea is visually presented early in the film by showing Tom in a dress which he has agreed to wear for a female role in an upcoming school play. The dress itself acts to denaturalize gender by suggesting it to be something which is learned, rehearsed and performed like a role within a theatrical production rather than a natural component of the biological sex of an individual. The wearing of the dress is a gesture which constitutes its wearer as a feminine subject. The willingness of Tom to wear the dress breaks apart a notion of gender which is the result of the biological sex of an individual.

While the film exposes the masquerade as the process which constructs gender, it must simultaneously reject this proposal. This rejection is evident in the subsequent actions of Tom and Laura during the scene in which Laura is altering the dress that Tom is to wear in the play. Talking about the upcoming dance, Tom confesses his lack of dancing skills. Laura agrees to teach him to dance and the two begin to practice while Tom is still wearing the dress. But almost immediately the two stop dancing because as Tom says, “We’d better put it off, we’d look kinda silly both of us in skirts.” Tom is wearing the dress and Laura assumes the male position in the dancing embrace.

Furthermore, while letting Tom wear the dress the film must then prevent him from actually carrying out the performance. His father, Herb Lee, forbids Tom from playing the part and forces him to resign from the play. The patriarchal sanction indicates that while gender may be thought of in terms of masquerade, it is not a choice or voluntary decision. Rather gender is the “effect of a regulatory regime of gender differences which are divided and hierarchized under constraint.” (“Critically Queer”, p. 21.) Thus, for Tom to wear a dress as well as occupy the position of the female dancing partner and for Laura to assume the male dancing position would in a sense subvert this regime by problematizing the notion of certain roles and traits as being applicable to only certain genders. To continue the dancing lesson would blur the division between genders.

Additionally, their dance if allowed to continue would undermine the concept of a natural gender hierarchy because Laura occupies the male role in the dance. In a sense, the conclusion of the film restages the dance between Laura and Tom. Instead of undermining the gender regime, their sexual union serves to confirm and stabilize that very system by reestablishing a proper division and hierarchy.

Bill Reynolds and the Masculine Masquerade

The exposing of gender as masquerade is further suggested in the film by the character of Bill Reynolds, Laura’s husband. Within the narrative, he is subtly coded as being homosexual, yet he masks this fact by successfully adhering to the norm of masculinity. Although he expresses masculinity, there are clues within the story which imply that Bill is perhaps not a “real” man, but a homosexual.

Throughout the film, Bill resists interaction with his wife in favor of spending time with the boys under his charge or other men. When Laura wants to go to Canada for the summer, Bill informs her that he has already invited some of the boys up to their lodge for the summer. In a later scene, Laura plans dinner for just her and Bill, but instead Bill leaves her alone in order to eat dinner with the dean. In addition, the film indicates that Bill and Laura have only been married for a year. Such a late marriage in the 1950’s would be understood as a divergence from orthodox masculinity and could perhaps code Bill as a homosexual as well.

Moreover, the reaction of Bill to Tom and the tormenting of him by the other boys implies not only a hatred of Tom’s divergence from traditional masculinity, but also perhaps a hatred of those same elements within himself. Indeed, Bill does nothing to prevent the other boys from abusing Tom. During the bonfire scene he appears to be sadistically enjoying the humiliating isolation of Tom from the homosocial pajama ritual. Prior to the scene, Bill admits to Laura that he used to listen to phonograph records and had a secret place to cry when he was a student at Chilton.

Although admitting his similarity to Tom, Bill also states emphatically that he learned how to be a man, implying that Tom must do the same. This statement disturbs the easy and automatic relationship posited by the culture of the fifties between sex and gender. At first the film presents Bill’s masculinity as self-evident and unproblematic, but his admission to Laura indicates that his masculinity is not natural, but is a learned response to social regulations. Yet, by revealing Bill’s masculinity as less than automatic, the film intimates that he is perhaps not a “real” man, but a homosexual. Such a reading seems possible because all the other boys are presented as masculine men. They do not question their masculinity and when it is threatened by Tom, the encapsulate him as “sister-boy” in order to confirm their own gender position.

The stable connection between gender and sex is also fractured during the beach scene in which Bill answers questions for a masculinity test entitled “Are you masculine?” within the newspaper. On some level, the presence of the quiz itself produces this fracture. If gender is a coherent and unconscious expression of biological sex, then why is a quiz needed to measure the masculinity of an individual. Indeed, when the quiz is introduced, Al, Tom’s roommate asks, “What do you mean are you masculine?” To Al the quiz is illogical. If you are a man, then naturally you are masculine.

The test stipulates that answers to its questions be decided without thinking. The replies must be natural and spontaneous rather than a rehearsed delivery of the culturally expected answers which would serve to confirm the masculinity of the respondent. The masculinity quiz could be related to the concept of deception posited by Ehrenreich. Some men looked like men, but were not really men and this test could uncover that deception. Thus, the boy who asks Bill the test questions admonishes him for delaying his answers. To delay in one’s answer is to cast doubt on one’s masculinity. A procrastination implies that one does not naturally and automatically know that for men beauty means girls and fun means hunting, therefore implicating the respondent as not a “real” man. In this regard, the boys suggest administering the quiz to Tom, but they all agree that such an action would be a waste of time. Seeing Tom sewing with the faculty wives is enough proof of Tom’s gender deception.

Bill is the only character who submits to the test. Although responding to the first two questions, he refuses to continue with the quiz. Why does Bill refuse to continue? Could one see his refusal as being motivated by fear of being discovered by the quiz? Bill discards the quiz in favor of feats of manly strength such as wrestling. Thus, the problematic quiz is replaced by an expression of masculinity grounded in the physical nature of the male body. The link between gender and biological sex is questioned at this moment, but disavowed by both Bill and the narrative in favor of a physical activity that instead secures the male body as inherently masculine.

Tom’s Body

This point is underscored by the positioning of the body of Tom as somehow physically different from the other boys. Although his tennis skill is acknowledged, his opponent in the big match doubts the way in which Tom expresses that skill. The implication is that Tom does not hit the ball like a man. Even Tom’s body cannot be understood as male within a certain point of the film because to have a real male body is to express its inherent masculinity through that body as the other boys do on the beach.

The body of Tom does not declare his masculinity. Indeed, Tom’s father wants him to get a crew cut so that he will “look” like the other boys. Even, Ellie, the town prostitute remarks that Tom’s hands look like those of a girl and not a boy. Once constituted as different from the other boys by the performative “sister-boy”, Tom must be completely feminized not only in his actions, but also in his physical self because in the dominant culture gender is an expression of biological sex.

Yet, while seemingly relying on the body to confirm gender, the film undermines this relationship as well. The day after the bonfire, Al goes to the school music room in order to tell Tom that he cannot room with him in the following school year. Al attempts to help Tom by teaching him how to walk like a man. As at the beach, gender is seen as a physical expression of the body. Men and women walk differently because their bodies are biologically distinct. First, Al instructs Tom to walk across the room so that he can indicate how the walk of his roommate is incorrect. Al explains the walk of Tom as plodding. Unsure of Al’s meaning, Tom asks him to recreate the walk in order for Tom to observe his manner of walking. Al responds, “I can’t do it.” By saying that he cannot walk like Tom, is Al afraid of how he will be perceived as unmasculine or does the film through his statement yet again link gender to the somatic?

Al then demonstrates his walk for Tom and not surprisingly Tom is unable to replicate the action. The separation of gender and biological sex implied by the film is reversed within the music room scene. Yet, while this scene employs biological sex to confirm and establish gender, the previous scene implies that physical expressions and their connection to a particular gender is purely arbitrary. In the previous scene, Al and Laura discuss his plans to leave the house and the predicament of Tom. Laura asks Al how he would like it, if rumors were spread about him which would serve to question his physical demeanor. As Al listens to Laura, he is standing with his hands on his hips. Then suddenly he changes his stance as if his prior position could somehow be judged unmasculine. This action disturbs the link between the body and gender and thus the subsequent scene in the music room tries to reassert this connection.


At the beginning of the film prior to the flashback, Tom is shown walking to his old dormitory house. In comparison to the walk in the music room, there is a notable difference. After having sex with Laura, Tom walks with greater purpose and intent at his ten year reunion. This difference in conjunction with the close-up of Tom’s wedding ring as he looks at his old room, serves to confirm that the chain of sex/gender/desire has been reestablished after its disruption. The heterosexual union between Laura and Tom fosters this reordering of the chain. Thus, while Tea and Sympathy problematizes the sequence of sex/gender/desire it only does so in order to reassert the primacy of heterosexuality as well as masculinity and the gender system which is required and regulated by it. The prospect of homosexuality within the film and its viability as a subject position within culture is denied and erased in favor of compulsory heterosexuality.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Notes on a Film: Reverence, Irreverence, Irrelevance- Viewing Household Saints


In 1974 at the age of seven, I invited several kids from the Brooklyn block where I lived into the wood-paneled basement of my parent’s attached brick house.  It was Easter and I had decided to conduct my own Mass of the Resurrection including plain butter cookies to serve as the host, the body of Christ, as well as a small diorama of Jesus’ tomb at the moment of his resurrection.  Although at this point in my life such a scenario seems simultaneously sentimental, amusing and queer, I know that at the time it was informed by a deep conviction (or more precisely the conviction of a child) in the belief system of the Catholic church not in terms of dogma but rather in terms of its magic and spectacle.  At that time I also had a book of saints which I read over and over again with the secret hope that I was or would become a saint too or at least witness a miracle.  I longed for the marks of sainthood on my body, especially hoping to receive the stigmata of the crucified Christ. 

Today, I no longer attend church.  Yet, I am still fascinated by its magic, spectacle and religious imagery.  This fascination is  not a component of religious structure or belief.  Rather for me, Catholicism is a vessel which for hundreds of years has been invested with the power of countless people who believe in and mark its images and narratives with meaning.  For example, a religious painting possesses a power and aura not from God or the church but from the spectators who have imbued it with their energy of belief.

So, how does this personal digression intersect with a wonderful 1993 film entitled Household Saints by Nancy Savoca?  The film chronicles the life of an ordinary girl named Theresa (played by the amazing Lili Taylor), the daughter of a butcher, who yearns for Jesus Christ.  As a little girl, Theresa becomes obsessed with the miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary at Fatima as well as religious artifacts.  As a teenager in the 1950’s, Theresa becomes more entranced by the life of Saint Theresa, known as The Little Flower who achieved sainthood by performing ordinary household chores.  After her early death, she  is perceived as a saint.  The narrative  and the formal properties of the film (Catholicism is a very cinematic religion) in general allowed me to experience and revel in the religious magic that I had longed for in my childhood.    It fulfilled my youthful fantasies of saints, miracles and stigmata as well as the lingering echoes of these same fantasies within my adult life.

The image of Theresa within Household Saints resonated deeply with my childhood Catholic imagination which at first disarmed me academically.  After seeing the film for the first time, I did not seek to deconstruct its representations and its narrative in terms of religion, gender and class.  I simply enjoyed it for the sensation it produced in terms of my own memory, desire and nostalgia.  It reminds me of Susan Sontag’s call for an erotics of art rather than a hermeneutics of art. 

My experience of the film was indeed erotic, a evocation which seems particularly suited to religious imagery and narrative, which is always highly infused with sexual feeling.  I did not feel the need to interpret the film, but merely allowed it to connect with and wash over me in a way which was extremely pleasurable.  A friend once said to me that artistic texts were tools to discuss other things: race, gender, sexuality, etc.  Such a position seems to me skewed, particularly when I look at my relationship to Household Saints.  I did not want to use this film merely to talk about other things, but rather wanted the film to be a site for my own enjoyment.

However, these “other things” are not irrelevant.  I have watched Household Saints several times and I still experience my original feeling of it.  Yet, these numerous viewings have allowed me to think about the film in terms of gender and religion.  There are moments in the film in which Theresa’s desire to become a saint is demystified and made visible as part of the gender ideology of the Catholic church and the wider culture.  As a  high school freshmen in Catholic school Theresa wins a essay contest for her work entitled, “Why Communism is the Antichrist.”  For her prize she receives a book about the life of Saint Theresa, a woman who “reached” God through housework.  Thus, the exteriority of the essay’s subject, despite all its implication in 1950’s Catholic ideology, is awarded with a book which tells Theresa to concentrate on the interior, the “feminine” sphere.  The book is not so much a model for sainthood, but a blueprint for the 1950’s housewife.


Similarly, in her senior year of high school Theresa meets a young law student named Leonard.  When she describes her love for Saint Theresa, Leonard responds that half the girls in his neighborhood wanted to be the Little Flower.  His words deflate the early episodes in Theresa’s life in which her character is visually and narratively distinguished from the other girls around her.  Her love and emulation of the Little Flower seems special, genuine and unique.  Leonard’s comment reveals the ideological function  of this particular saint’s life for the education of 1950’s Catholic school girls.  He goes on to say that a woman can possess all that Saint Theresa is through secular means: marrying and serving a man and raising a family.  The gender ideology of the church as well as the dominant culture becomes visible in this scene.

Later in the film when Theresa is caring for Leonard both in terms of housework as well as sex, she has a vision of Christ while ironing Leonard’s red and white checked shirt.  With a British accent Christ explains why his garment is dirty.  Theresa offers to wash it for him.  Christ begins to laugh and suddenly (in an amazingly beautiful image) the room is filled with hundreds of red and white checked shirts which appear to radiate light.  In contrast to the formal beauty of the image, like an altarpiece painting in a church, the ideological unraveling is clear.  Theresa’s actions do not serve Jesus or religion, but mortal men.  She does not wash Jesus’ clothing but rather the clothing of Leonard.

Household Saints seems to simultaneously celebrate and dismantle the representations of religion.  It revels in the beauty and evocation of religious images, but additionally attempts at points to unravel the ideological work performed by them.  At the end of the film, Theresa dies and the viewer is left to wonder was she really a saint or was she simply mentally ill.  The duality of the ending mirrors the play of Catholic reverence and irreverence within the film.  There is no absolute resolution to Theresa’s character.  And while my critical understanding of the film did enhance my pleasure of it, the end of the film, Theresa’s death, brings me back to my original feeling of desire, nostalgia and pleasure.  It brings me back to the wood-paneled basement of 1974 and I always cry.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Notes on a Film: A Married Woman by Jean-Luc Godard

[T]he classic theory of cinema that the camera is impartial instrument which grasps, or rather is impregnated by, the world in its “concrete reality” is an eminently reactionary one.  What the camera in fact registers is the vague, unformulated, untheorized, unthoughtout world of the dominant ideology.  Cinema is one of the languages through which the world communicates itself to itself…Once we realize it is the nature of the system to turn the cinema into an instrument of ideology, we can see that the filmmaker’s first task is to show up the cinema’s so-called “depiction of reality”.  If he can do so there is a chance that we will be able to disrupt or possibly even sever the connection between cinema and its ideological function.- Jean-Luc Comoli and Jean Narboni in “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism”

Although Comoli and Narboni do not believe that film can ever remove itself from the dominant ideology of capitalism in terms of the economics of production and distribution, they do assert in their 1969 article, “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism” that the interior of film rather than its exterior can challenge “ideological assimilation.”  In order for this challenge to be effective, it must occur at the level of the signified and the signifier.  A film which seeks to resist and undermine the dominant ideology must confront that belief-system on formal as well as thematic ground.  It must reveal its “depiction of reality” as instead a depiction of ideology.

A Married Woman by Jean-Luc Godard is a wonderful and engaging film that attempts to challenge and resist “ideological assimilation” through both its form as well as content.  This resistance of form and content centers on the role of women within the ideology of capitalism, particularly how this role is inflected by consumerism.  Indeed, consumerism seems not only to describe and define the relationship of women to commodity, and women to themselves, also women to men.  Thus, the film attempts to show ideology as an illusion of “reality” (albeit an illusion which determines everyday experience and existence) rather than “reality” itself.  In this way, A Married Woman seeks to unveil the ideological nature of film itself, film as illusion.

The beginning of the film is characterized by the fragmentation of male and female body parts.  The first shot of the film contains the hand of a man clasped around the wrist of a woman.  As the film  proceeds, it progressively reveals the entire body of the woman, particularly her face, whereas the whole body of the man remains hidden longer to the gaze of the viewer.  The majority of the male body is located just off-screen.  The parts of his body which are revealed within the cinematic frame seem to align those invisible parts and indeed his entire body with the apparatus of the camera.  In a sense one might conceptualize him as filming the female body of the protagonist.  Such a reading is underlined by his continual statement, “I want to look at you” as well as shots which show his hand moving over the body of the woman.  The moving hand is like the camera which moves in conjunction with this hand.

Furthermore, in the final shot before the face of the male figure is exposed to the spectator, one sees the back of his head.  In this way, he stands in for the camera filming the body of the woman which is located behind him.  Does this opening sequence deny ideological assimilation by revealing the objectness of the female body and the equation of the male gaze with the gaze of the camera through the formal presentation of male and female bodies as fragmented? Or does it merely reproduce a dominant gender ideology?

The first sequence of the film also foregrounds the role of consumerism within the lives of women, particularly how women define themselves as well in terms of the relationship between women and men.  Within the film, consumerism encompasses not only the consumption of specific products such as bras, but also in terms of the advertising of those products.  In addition, the film posits a relationship between consumerism and various systems of representation such as women’s magazines as well as film.  For example, the female protagonist does not possess any underarm hair which she explains in terms of Hollywood cinema.  Film is presented as a model for what it means to be a woman.  It is an ideological device.

In addition, A Married Woman presents two similar shots of the woman standing in front of a large billboard which is advertising Triumph bras.  Here, the ideal, fictious woman of advertising (ideology) is compared to the “real” woman who must live out the demands of that ideology.  And perhaps this pairing disrupts the dominant ideology and reveals the role of film within the production of that belief system

Such an idea is further highlighted by the interaction of the female protagonist with magazines for women.  The magazine she is reading outlines various instructions for a formula in order to determine if one has an ideal bust for one’s height.  Within the scene, the woman is seen as conforming to the dominant ideology, but perhaps the humorous and ludicrous nature  of the scene and the formula attempts to subvert the viewer’s “ideological assimilation” to the dominant definition of woman.

One must, however, question the fetishistic centrality of the bra and breasts within the film.  Does this consideration of the bra and breast within advertising reveal it as an ideological site at which the category of woman is produced?  Does it denaturalize the breast and its presentation in advertising?  Or does it merely reproduce the presentation of the female body within the dominant system?  For example does the inclusion of male crotch shots undermine this reproduction?  Or does it demonstrate the disparity (in terms of size and conception) between representations of men and women within culture in order to construct a critical stance to the images of women presented by the film?

In conclusion, I would like to consider further the relationship between men and women within the film.  Because the female protagonist has both a husband and a lover, she can be considered independent of the dominant ideology and possessing agency. She has made her own choices. Yet, the film continually demonstrates how she is already defined within and hailed by ideology as a woman particularly in terms of the centrality within the film of the bra and breast.  In a sense, the woman in her alignment with commodities is herself understood as a (sexual) commodity who is exchanged between men, between her lover and her husband.  In the end, does the film reinscribe the notion of woman as commodity, as object or does it criticize and deconstruct this prevailing system?  To further explore this question, one would need to consider the voice-overs of the woman in greater detail to see how she speaks rather than how she is spoken by ideology.

Silver Desire: A Silverplate Coffeepot by Taunton Silverplate Company


In 1854 diplomatic relations were established between Japan and the United States and in 1858 trade relations began between the 2 countries which allowed a large number of Japanese goods to enter the United States. The craze for things Japanese by the American public, however, did not really occur until the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia with its spectacular Japanese exhibition. This fascination for Japanese design became


even more predominant in the 1880’s with the aesthetic style, but it is also important to note that Japanese influence can be seen in American silver flatware as early as 1869. This influence occurred both on the level of style, motifs and techniques of workmanship. A prime example of the early influence of Japan is Gorham’s multi-motif flatware pattern Japanese which was introduced in 1870.

It is also important to note that Japanese influence on American design is often combined with that of China given the cross-pollination of those cultures as well as the ignorance of 19th century Western spectators/consumers to the differences between the 2 cultures.


For example, the handle motif on a coffee spoon in Gorham’s Japanese pattern displays not only a fan and dragonfly, but also the background has a stippled texture which is evocative of Japanese metalwork. The dragonfly, however, while recalling Japanese subject matter is less naturalistic and more abstract than would be found in Japanese art. This texture continues down the shank of the spoon which has an abstract leaf/floral motif that possibly suggests bamboo.

The Gorham coffee spoon is a very sophisticated example of early Japanese influence on American silver. At the time of its production, it was not very popular and did not sell well, hence, its rarity today. The Taunton Silverplate Company coffeepot is a more popular, more accessible and relatively inexpensive example of Japanese (and Chinese) influence on American silver holloware design.


The coffeepot displays oriental motifs derived from China and Japan while maintaining a traditional Western shape of a footed pot prevalent in the 1870’s and continuing into the 1880’s. It does not exhibit any stylistic connection to the arts of Japan and China. On the upper body of the pot is a flying tauntoncoffeepot3 crane or heron with a snake in its mouth. Below the flying bird is an open medallion suitable for the engraving of the owner’s initials. Surrounding this medallion are pseudo-Japanese or Chinese characters, a motif also found in Gorham’s Japanese.

tauntoncoffeepot4Finally, on either side of the characters, there is an engraved flower which recalls a peony. The peony is considered to be the national flower of China and it has a long history as one of the main motifs in Chinese decorative arts as well as in literature and poetry. After it was introduced to Japan in the 8th century, the peony became a prominent feature in Japanese decorative arts as well.

The 19th century owner of this Taunton piece would indeed recognize the peony and the pseudo-writing to be reminiscent of the East without a specific understanding of their meaning. It would satisfy their desire to be fashionable and participate in the cultural consumption of the Other in operation at the time.


This display of the Other is literalized on the finial, handle and spout of the coffeepot. The finial is a bust of an oriental figure wearing a coolie hat and sporting a long braid. This depiction seems more Chinese than Japanese and recalls the finials on Western teapots in the chinoiserie style of the mid-nineteenth century.


The other 2 figural motifs on the coffeepot wear hats which suggest China as well. All 3 figures exhibit a stereotypical and exaggerated shape to the eyes, an exaggeration which is grounded in Western (supposed) superiority to the Other and the actual practice of imperialism and the academic discipline of Orientalism.


Despite its conglomeration of motifs and styles, I like this humble silverplate coffeepot. Its quirkiness appeals to me. And, indeed, the bringing together of disparate elements is at times indicative of the aesthetic style of the 1870’s and 1880’s. And although it does not have the sophistication of Gorham’s Japanese pattern, it attests to the way in which elite styles are often distilled into more popular, more inexpensive items for a mass market. The original owner of the coffeepot purchased it in part to participate in the style and fashion of their time, to be a player in the growing consumer culture of capitalism. And for me this coffeepot emanates this original desire, just as I imbue it with my own desire when I use it to serve coffee. It has a literal and figurative patina of history. It is imbued with a moment of the past that is not just the relentless march of capitalism, but I hope the love and desire of its original owner.