Revenge of a Cool Girl
by: Agnieszka Piotrowska , May 15, 2019
by: Agnieszka Piotrowska , May 15, 2019
The idea of a ‘nasty’ woman who challenges the masculine is not new, but in recent times it has gained a new currency and might offer a space for reflection. What does it mean to resist patriarchy in contemporary cinema and why and how might it be relevant to the culture outside the movie theatre? How can female anger be translated through female authorship into work, which gives expression to a female voice and the possibility of imagining a different future? I focused on such questions in my new theoretical work and experimented with creating an impressionistic video essay which deploys some of the ideas from my new book, The Nasty Woman (2019) through the use of different visual tools.
The video essay opens with a short clip from the new Netflix series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018) about female power and rage. I use it as a punctuation mark in my exploration of female authorial anger against patriarchy. The essay intends to be allusive and enigmatic, from which it derives its visual poetry and emotional impact. It works through associations rather than a linear argument, yet it makes a clear point about how the neo femmes fatales created by women authors give different expression to their rage and lend different agency to their anger.
The figure of a femme fatale has been discussed extensively in the scholarly literature (see, for example, Bronfen 2004; Doane 1991; Copjec 1993) as, on the one hand, a harbinger of subversion; on the other, nothing more than a male fantasy, complying with general expectations of traditional patriarchy. As such, in film narratives, the femmes fatales needed to be punished and extinguished in the end, even if in the 1940s and 1950s, they offered an alternative to a typical female lead of the 1930s who primarily occupied domestic spaces. In a classic film noir, the femme fatale travelled away from home but was usually punished for her transgression of gender expectations.
In this video essay, I deploy the figure of Amy in Gone Girl (2014), a neo-femme fatale who literally gets away with murder. She is full of agency, be it of a negative kind, but she does not get punished. I invite the viewer to treat Amy’s character as an expression of metaphorical rage and a response to a long stream of violence against women. She is pitted against Dorothy, the abused woman from David Lynch’s classic Blue Velvet (1986), which offers an excellent counterpoint to Gone Girl. Not only is it a metaphor of the hidden and the invisible in American suburbia but it is also a cinematic text that strikes a different relationship to the gender power structures, agency and sexual violence, which it conjures up and puts on display. The video essay also uses clips from classic films of the noir genre, which provide a visual comparison to the neo-noir as well as to the classic feminist film Jeanne Dielman (1975) made by Chantal Akerman.
I take issue with a view presented by the notable feminist psychoanalyst, Jacqueline Rose who, in her article in the London Review of Books (2015), expresses her utter dismay at Gone Girl and another work, The Girl on the Train (2016), calling them deeply misogynistic and unhelpful to the feminist cause, in particular because of the violence and duplicity in Gone Girl and the apparent shortage of intelligence in The Girl on the Train. While Rose makes some excellent points, in critical terms, there is also a different way of framing the representations of female violence.
In The Nasty Woman, I evoke the notion of ‘perverse protest’ in these films, a term which I borrow from Lori Marso (2016: 870) in connection to Simone de Beauvoir’s definition of marriage as ‘perversion.’ In her discussion of Gone Girl and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, Marso (2016: 870) points to the surprising similarity between the two films, namely to the anger of the main female character against patriarchy. Similarly, I argue that the grotesque and unexpected female violence in both films is a metaphorical gesture of defiance against the expected complicity of a nice woman within a patriarchal system.
Jeanne Dielman is recognised as a feminist classic in stark contrast to Gone Girl, whose subversive potential might not be immediately apparent because of its genre (Hollywood psychological thriller) and its distinct authorial context (a male director). Nonetheless, the author of the novel Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn presents Amy’s position as a response to the actual and perceived violence carried out by her husband and by patriarchal society as a whole. Following Marso’s line of thinking, the video essay invites the viewer to consider the violence in Gone Girl as a ‘perverse protest’ against the violence of patriarchy, which other popular films, such as, for example, Blue Velvet, did not offer.
Since its release, Blue Velvet has attracted a substantial body of criticism by notable feminist scholars, particularly by those engaged with psychoanalysis. What is surprising is that many of them appear to defend the level of violence and sexual abuse inflicted on Dorothy, the film’s subjugated femme fatale. Barbara Creed’s well-known article, from 1988 acknowledges the film’s provenance as a typical neo-noir and advances the argument that the film constitutes a ‘send-up of Freudian themes’ (1988: 97). However, Creed does not fully recognise the violence that the film subjects the woman to or Lynch’s evident enjoyment in presenting that violence. Creed, alongside Laura Mulvey (1994), Lynne Layton (1996) and others, emphasises the rather obvious re-formulation of the Oedipal plot. She sees Dorothy as partly presented as the phallic mother because of her powerful position in the desires of the male protagonists. ‘This is why Frank screams at her not to look at him. He cannot bear to see that she ultimately holds the power’ (1988: 110). Indeed, this may be the case but Dorothy’s power is stripped away from her in the film’s ultimate resolution.
Reading these scholarly articles in 2019 after the #MeToo campaign and Harvey Weinstein’s scandal is a profoundly uncomfortable experience. First of all, the Oedipal story—which forms the mainstay of Freud’s theory and which is represented in Blue Velvet— feels anachronistic and deeply patriarchal in the way it renders it (the theory and the film) merely irrelevant. Psychoanalysis can be employed in modern ways, emphasising the unconscious without accepting the Oedipal fable as the organising story of the western culture. It is disquieting that in these feminist texts, women scholars attempt to present Dorothy as powerful even though she is repeatedly abused. The screen fantasy in Blue Velvet appears to be precisely the opposite: the powerful phallic mother is overwhelmed and eventually castrated by the usual domestication of the femme fatale. At the end of the film, she is seen as safe, but devoid of her mysterious attractiveness, simply a single mother with a little son. However much I admire David Lynch as a filmmaker, I have no interest whatsoever in seeing Dorothy raped and humiliated on the screen in yet another re-telling of the Oedipal myth.
In the video essay I trace visual similarities in the classic noir and neo-noir films’ story worlds, including a sense of movement, often in a car but also as walking up and down the stairs, moving in lifts, running and dancing, as well as a sense of a passionate engagement and, at times, jealousy which drives the story. The notion of punishment is important too. Deeds committed against the femme fatale (actual or imagined) drive her towards taking action on her terms. Deception and entrapment are the traditional elements of film noir, and they are repeated and reformulated in neo-noir with one crucial difference: the neo-femme fatale becomes the subject and not the object, she is active, and she does not go under.
It is worth remembering that in Blue Velvet, there is another female character, Sandy, who is contrasted with Dorothy. Played by young Laura Dern, Sandy has been discussed in scholarly literature much less readily. Yet, she is the original ‘cool girl’. The term coined by Gillian Flynn through Amy in Gone Girl signifies a (young) woman who is game for anything, and who is prepared to be everything that a man wants her to be without putting any demands on him.
The video essay brings together the classic cool girls of film noir: Amy from Gone Girl (played Rosamund Pike) and Sandy from Blue Velvet. The cool girl is a good looking, charming, thin, well-educated professional who can cook a fabulous meal and is a perfect lover; one that is innocent but adventurous and also endlessly supportive and forgiving. She is an impossible patriarchal fantasy pretending to be a post-feminist success. The cool girl is also the perfect housewife in Chantal Akerman’s film. She perfectly performs all the mundane womanly tasks, including preparing meals and offering sex, until one day she snaps and is unable to comply with this absurd fantasy. It is then that she kills a man.
In this video essay, I also wanted to include Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (2006). Its female lead, Jackie is a femme fatale driven by a desire to carry out revenge like many classic noir heroines and Amy from Gone Girl. Unexpectedly, however, Jackie is transformed through touch and the power of a deeply satisfying sexual experience. Both Luce Irigaray and Audre Lorde (2017: 22-30) advocate considering the erotic energy as a power for transformation, reclaiming the sexual from the patriarchal, and urging women to think of it as a possible transformative feminine force. It is crucial to emphasise that in Red Road, Jackie remains in charge of the physical encounter at all times. She is always the subject and never the object, but through the erotic encounter, she sees her sexual partner as a subject too, and because of this, her rage gives way to other emotions. This is why, I argue, she chooses forgiveness and not revenge, while subverting both the domestication necessary for taming the femme fatale and the nonsensical fantasy of the cool girl. Instead, Jackie is awoken through the encounter but chooses a future on her own, against the Oedipal ideal.
Use the HD button to adjust the video’s quality.
Bronfen, Elisabeth (2004), ‘Femme Fatale—Negotiations of Tragic Desire’, New Literary History Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 103–16.
Creed, Barbara (1988), ‘A Journey through Blue Velvet: Film, fantasy and the female spectator’, New Formations, No. 6, pp. 97-116.
Copiec, Joan (ed.) (1993), Shades of Noir: A Reader, New York: Verso.
Cowie, Elizabeth (1993), ‘Film Noir and Women’, in Joan Copiec (ed.), Shades of Noir: A Reader, New York: Verso, pp. 121–66.
Beauvoir de, Simone (1976 ), The Ethics of Ambiguity, trans. Bernard Frechtman, New York: Citadel.
Beauvoir de, Simone ( 2011 ), The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde & Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, New York: Vintage.
Doane, Mary Anne (1991), Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis, New York: Routledge.
Doane, Mary Anne (1987), ‘The Woman’s Film: Possession and Address’ in Christine Gledhill (ed.), Home is Where the Heart is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film, London: BFI, pp. 283–98.
Grossman, Julie (2009), Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir: Ready for Her Close-up, New York: Palgrave.
Layton, Lynne (1994), ‘Blue Velvet: A Parable of Male Development’, Screen, Vol. 35, No. 4, pp. 374–93.
Lorde, Audre (2017), Your Silence will not Protect You, Madrid: Silver Press.
Marso, Lori (2016), ‘Perverse Protests: Simone de Beauvoir on Pleasure and Danger, Resistance, and Female Violence in Film’, Signs, Vol. 41, No. 4, pp. 869–94.
Mulvey. Laura (1994), ‘Netherworlds and the Unconscious: Oedipus and Blue Velvet’. Fetishism and Curiosity, London: British Film Institute, pp. 137–54.
Piotrowska, Agnieszka (2019), The Nasty Woman and the Neo-femme Fatale in Contemporary Cinema, London: Routledge.
Rose, Jacqueline (2015), ‘Corkscrew in the Neck’, London Review of Books, Vol. 37, No. 17, pp 25-26.
Films & TV Series
Blue Velvet (1986), dir. David Lynch.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018), Season 1, TV series developed by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Netflix.
Double Indemnity (1944), dir. BillyWilder.
Gone Girl (2014), dir. David Fincher.
Jeanne Dielman (1975) , dir. Chantal Akerman.
Mulholland Drive (2001), dir. David Lynch.
Postman Always Rings Twice, The (1946), dir. Tay Garnett.
Red Road (2006), dir. Andrea Arnold.
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