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The woman's film, the new women's cinema, and the women's buddy film Nash, Melanie Leigh 1994

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THE WOMAN’S FILM, THE NEW WOMEN’S CINEMA, ANDTHE WOMEN’S BUDDY FILMbyMelanie Leigh NashB.A., University of Western Ontario, 1991B.A.(Honours), Brock University, 1992A THESIS SUBMITTED IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OFTHE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OFMASTER OF ARTSinTHE FACULTY OF GRADUATE STUDIES(DEPARTMENT OF THEATRE AND FILM)We accept this thesis as conformingto the required standardThe University of British ColumbiaAugust 1994© Melanie Leigh Nash, 1994In presenting this thesis in partial fulfilment of the requirements for an advanceddegree at the University of British Columbia, I agree that the library shall make itfreely available for reference and study. I further agree that permission for extensivecopying of this thesis for scholarly purposes may be granted by the head of mydepartment or by his or her representatives. It is understood that copying orpublication of this thesis for financial gain shall not be allowed without my writtenpermission.(Signature)Department ofThe University of British ColumbiaVancouver, CanadaDate 14L9 /7,DE-6 (2188)IIThe Woman’s Film, The New Women’s Cinemaand The Women’s Buddy FilmAbstractThis thesis examines the way in which the representation of women’sfriendship in Hollywood cinema is ideologically constructed: first in theclassical era of the woman’s film; second, in the I 970s renaissance of thewoman’s film as a genre, known as the “new women’s cinema”; and third, in avery recent group of films of the late I 980s and early 1990s that can be thoughtof as a generic hybrid of the woman’s film and the male buddy film of the1970s. Each of these three periods is marked by unique characteristicsrelating to the way in which female friendship is figured; and certainly there hasbeen an advance in the variety of women’s roles generally, and of depictions offemale friendship specifically, in Hollywood over this sixty year period. And yetthere has not been a great deal of change in the degree to which patriarchaldiscourses--in relation to concepts such as marriage, family, home and career--delineate the scope and meaning of these representations of women’sfriendships in accordance with dominant ideology. This thesis traces anincreased ideological openness or ambiguity across time; but a coherentfeminist discourse does not emerge in Hollywood’s depiction of women friendseither in tandem with the women’s movement of the I 970s, or in ourcontemporary cinema’s female buddy films. What has changed is the sociopolitical climate in which such films are received, rather than simply the filmsthemselves.IIIThe first chapter outlines the depiction of friendship between women inthe two historical eras in question, pointing to the degree of change in thewoman’s film from the I 930s and I 940s to the I 970s. In the second chapter, Iexamine Robin Wood’s schemata of the male buddy film of the early I 970s,and evaluate his notion of this generic cycle’s ideological progressiveness.The third chapter applies Wood’s model of male buddy films to three femalebuddy films of the I 990s: Thelma and Louise, Fried Green Tomatoes, andLeaving NormaL The fourth chapter proposes the concept of a “backlash”buddy film through a sustained textual analysis of Single White Female. And inthe fifth and final chapter, I return to theoretical problems of establishing textualmeaning in popular film that have been raised by each of the precedingchapters.ivTABLE OF CONTENTSAbstract iiTable of Contents ivAcknowledgments vPrefaceChapter One Female Friendship Onscreen, from the ClassicalHollywood Cinema to the New Women’s Cinemaof the 1970s 6Chapter Two A New Genre: From Male Buddies to Female Friends. .22Notes to Chapter 2 36Chapter Three Three Recent Women’s Buddy Films 37Chapter Four Backlash?: Fatal Female Friendship and OtherMor(t)ality Tales 70Chapter Five Conclusion: Reception Theory and FeministCriticism of Popular Texts 80Notes to Chapter 5 89Works Cited 90VAcknowledgmentsI would like to express my sincere appreciation to my thesis advisor BrianMcllroy and to the other members of my committee, John Newton and PeterLoeffler. I would also like to thank John Forsyth for his assistance in thepreparation of this thesis.IPREFACEIn order to limit the field of films to be examined and the range oftheoretical questions to be addressed, I have chosen to confine my primarytextual analysis to mainstream, Hollywood films. This is partially to avoidcomparisons which are not only unfair, but critically unnecessary, as it seemsfairly evident that independently produced, stylistically avant-garde, overtlyfeminist films depicting women’s friendships are going to be “better,”ideologically speaking, than their Hollywood counterparts. While there arecertainly points of correspondence between the Hollywood films I examine indetail and “foreign” (in this context, read “not American”) or non-mainstreamfilms by women--such as Daisies (Vera Chytilova, 1966), La Vie Revee(Mireille Dansereau, 1972), L’une chante, l’autre pas (Agnes Varda, 1977),Entre Nous (Diane Kurys, 1983), La femme de I’hotel (Lea Pool, 1984), I’veHeard the Mermaids Singing (Patricia Rozema, 1987), Loyalties (AnneWheeler, 1987) and Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1992), to name only afew--making such comparisons often leads to a simple dismissal of the moremainstream films as necessarily ideologically regressive or complicit, due totheir codes of realist illusionism. Rather than vilifying dominantrepresentational practices and visual pleasure in narrative cinema, I willattempt to trace change (or a lack thereof) in representations of women’srelationships within such mainstream filmic practice. By concentrating onHollywood film, I am acknowledging it as the most widely accessible and mostpopularly frequented cinema. And as a “technology of gender” (to use deLauretis’ term), the popular cinema is of vital interest to feminist inquiry intogender oppression in social reality.2Janet Thumim takes this last statement as the premise of CelluloidSisters (1992), her sociological study of the popular cinema in Britain between1945 and 1965. While Thumim’s work suffers from several methodologicalproblems and makes a number of assumptions which cannot be verified, Iwould like to point out one such assumption which has direct bearing on thisthesis. Thumim selects the films she analyses based on the top box officeperformance for the years of the post-war period in question, reasoning thatthese films had the greatest role to play in constructing feminine identity andwomen’s social roles during this era, Ultimately, she concludes that therepresentations of women that these films offered were complicit withpatriarchal definitions of women’s nature and social roles, or that those femalecharacters who transgressed such roles were severely punished. Thumim alsosuggests that topics of social importance to women’s real lives during thatperiod--divorce, careers for women, education for women, etc--were ignored ortrivialized by the cinema of the period, in accordance with patriarchy’s needssurrounding such issues (1-35).But by selecting examples of popular cinema in terms of the biggest boxoffice successes, however, Thumim tends to belie the (possible) variety ofrepresentations of women available to women movie-goers of the period,because the “hits” were not the only films accessible at the time. Femalespectators may have also attended “women’s films” which to some degreeaddressed their concerns, offered alternative visions of women’s roles, andwhich even became moderate commercial successes, but which did notbecome box office “hits” because of men’s lack of interest in such films. I don’thave evidence of this type of variety on British screens for the era in question3(although Brandon French’s On the Verge of Revolt [1978] discovers a greatdeal of such variety, at least in Hollywood films of the I 950s); but by extensionof Thumim’s method, the types of representation of women available in theI 990s would be reduced to those found in Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg,1994), Home Alone (Chris Columbus, 1990), Wayne’s World (PenelopeSpheeris, 1992), and so on. Such “hits,” however, do not begin to representthe choices available to cinema-goers today. While many women must haveseen Wayne’s World in order for it to become such a huge commercialsuccess, this does not mean that these women could not have or did not seeless “popular” (in box office terms) films, such as Fried Green Tomatoes (JonAvnet 1991), and perhaps enjoy them more than the blockbuster films.Thumim also explicitly states that she assumes, for lack of evidence tothe contrary, that the box office hits she analyses garnered audiences whosegender balance reflected the national demographics of the period in question.Thumim further claims that films are made popular insofar as they meet socialneeds, allowing the creation of meanings which are “useful” or “pleasurable” totheir audiences (1-35). Having assumed that women made up approximatelyhalf of the audience of box office hits between 1945 and 1965, Thumimproceeds to look for ways that women could have found use value andpleasure in patriarchal gender representations that were not in their interests.Once again, I have no evidence to suggest that she is necessarily wrong aboutthe gender mix of the audience of the films she analyses, but extending hermethodology to this time period, it would be fairly safe to assume that theaudiences of the blockbuster films of the I 990s mentioned above deviated fromnational demographics, both in terms of age and gender. That is, more4(younger) men than (older) women went to see Wayne’s World. Andconversely, many of the films I propose to examine may reach an audiencesubstantially different than demographic norms, likely drawing more (older)women than (younger) men, as determined not only by the appeal of a female-centered storyline but also by generic affiliations (many are melodramas or“women’s films,” in the traditional sense). When one is considering theideological influence of a film in representing female experience, beingunpopular with male audiences is not the same thing as being unpopularaltogether, yet numerically speaking, this may amount to the same thing. Thisgender bias of audiences must be accounted for, in terms of the way filmsaddress their spectators, and the pleasures or uses which a film may serve.I have chosen films, then, which are not necessarily top box office hits(although some are), by the topic they address, specifically, women’sfriendship. This means, of course, that I am not making any claims for thesefilms as representative of popular cinematic experience of genderrepresentation as a whole, as Thumim does. And I do not intend to providestatistics of audience demographics or box office receipts for the films Iconsider, but instead wish to point out the variety of gender representation theyoffer cinema consumers, often as alternatives to the number one box office hit.In this way, this thesis points to the emergence of the women’s buddygenre as a sign of a greater “popular” emphasis on women’s stories andexperience, as an alternative to most mainstream film production, whichhistorically and currently addresses the male audience, phallocentricallyconceived of as a neutral standard of popular taste, undifferentiated bygender. It is not, however, a sociological celebration of women being5recognized as a specialized commercial market in an increasingly competitiveindustry (for this is what the emergence of the female buddy “genre” in the1980s and 1990s, like the new women’s cinema [Kuhn 125] of the 1970s beforeit, largely signifies). The simple existence of films addressing a femaleaudience and depicting friendships between women, while certainly apromising sign, does not guarantee that they will address feminist interests.Readings of individual films will not be uncritical, and in most cases willhighlight their cultivated ambivalence, the lack of an articulated feminist projector any defined, ideological awareness. In assessing the limitations of theseparticular manifestations of the women’s buddy genre, I do not expect theformal disruption or stylistic radicalness of feminist avant-garde cinema, butdiegetic “radicalness” (i.e. feminist political awareness depicted as part of thestory) is conceivable, yet seldom realized.6CHAPTER 1Female Friendship OnscreenFrom the Classical Hollywood Cinema to the New Women’s Cinema of the1970sDuring the past fifteen years, there has been a notable increase in thenumber of mainstream Hollywood films that depict the relationship between twoor more women as a central point of narrative interest. The types ofrelationships that the female protagonists develop in these films are many andvaried: familial (Crimes of the Heart [Bruce Beresford 1986], Hannah and herSisters [Woody Allen, 1986], and Postcards from the Edge [Mike Nichols,1990]) or professional (Nine to Five [Cohn Higgins, 1980], Agnes of God [1985],and Working Girl [Mike Nichols, 1988]); as friends (Come Back to the Five andDime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean [Robert Altman, 1982], Bagdad Cafe [PercyAdlon 1988], and Beaches [Gary Marshall, 1988]) or as lovers (Personal Best[Robert Towne, 1982], Lianna [John Sayles, 1983], and Three of Hearts [YurekBogayevicz, 1993]). While the majority of such films fall within the genericboundaries of the traditional woman’s film (Terms of Endearment [James L.Brooks, 1983], Just Between Friends [AlIan Burns, 1986], immediate Family[Jonathan Kaplan, 1989] and Steel Magnolias [Herbert Ross, 1989] areexamples of typical tear-jerkers), many strong relationships between women(friendly or adversarial) have also cropped up outside of classical,melodramatic forms. Swing Shift (Jonathan Demme, 1984), The Color Purple(Steven Spielberg, 1985), A League of Their Own (Penny Marshall, 1992) andBad Girls (Jonathan Kaplan, 1994), for example, are all period pieces in7addition to being a wartime comedy, the screen adaptation of a famous novel, ahistorical sports film and a western, respectively. The Accused (JonathanKaplan, 1988) is a courtroom drama; Silkwood (Mike Nichols, 1984) is a “truestory” biopic; Black Widow (Bob Rafelson, 1986) is a mystery/thriller; TheWitches of Eastwick (George Miller, 1987) is a weird mixture of comedy,fantasy and horror genres; while Private Benjamin (Howard Zieff, 1980),Desperately Seeking Susan (Susan Seidelman, 1985), Outrageous Fortune(Arthur Hiller, 1987), and She-Devil (Susan Seidelman, 1989) are all comedy-adventure films.The relatively large number of these films (those listed above arerepresentative rather than exhaustive), the greater variety of types of femalerelationships depicted, and the diversity of genres in which such relationshipsare central suggest a marked departure from the way in which women’srelationships with each other have historically been represented (or under-represented) in mainstream cinema. For those liberal feminist critics who areprimarily interested in evaluating female roles in film as “positive” or “negative”portrayals of women, implicitly measured against the critics personal sense offeminist progress and female identity in the real world, the expansion of recentcinema’s treatment of women’s relationships is, in and of itself, a politicaladvancement of sorts:[W]omen will be victims and avengers, reckless, sexy, puritans,radicals, and up-tight bitches, dippy dames and morosemodernists, their very diversity a guarantee against stereotype.For every stereotype there’s a counter-stereotype and the story ofwomen can no longer be reduced to a recitation of evils. [...] Wewant nothing less, on and off the screen, than the wide varietyand dazzling diversity of male options. (Haskell 402)8Whether or not the representations of female relationships offered bythe individual films of the I 980s and I 990s actually constitute an ideologicalimprovement on their (more rare) historical counterparts is a matter of criticaldebate. Many critics have pointed to the general neoconservatism of Reagan-era Hollywood films and to the anti-feminist “message” presented even (orperhaps especially) in those films which are specifically about women andwomen’s issues (Palmer 246-279, Vlasopolos 118, and Wood 206-7, forexample). Notwithstanding the (probably justifiable) characterization of thefilms of the I 980s, such as the most universally lambasted example, Terms ofEndearment, as “reactionary” (Vlasopolos 118), the depiction of women’srelationships in contemporary cinema has, in fact, expanded and evolved sincethe classical period. The question remains, however, not only how the filmtexts themselves have changed, but also, how the (female) audience today isaddressed by these texts, and invited to makes sense of and find pleasure insuch representations as are offered. Specifically, I shall consider the cinematicrepresentation of friendship between women: first, as such friendship wasfigured in classical Hollywood cinema; second, its continued developmentduring the resurgence of woman’s films in the I 970s; and third, the most recentstage of its evolution, as presented in the emergence of a group of femalebuddy films in the early I 990s. While the portrayal of women’s friendships inmainstream cinema has superficially evolved in accordance with the demandsof the changing times, the ideological framework (socio-political“progressiveness” or “conservativeness”) which determines how we are invitedto understand these portrayals, has not shifted dramatically across the threetime periods in question. This is to say that, as a group, modern films centrally9depicting friendships between women do not indicate a coherent feministdiscourse to a significantly greater extent than do their historical counterparts.It is reasonably common for modern critics to decry the lack of positiverepresentations of female friendship in the classical Hollywood cinema, ascompared to the innumerable films of various genres--war films, westerns,gangster films, action-adventure films--that portrayed the unambiguousfriendship and professional solidarity among men. In Celluloid Sisters, a studyof the most commercially successful films in Britain during the 1940s, 1 950s,and I 960s, Janet Thumim notes that in direct contrast to the importanceaccorded to marriage in films of the period, very few films addressed theequally universal experience (for women) of female friendships.Representations of any friendships between women are rare; friendshipscarrying narrative significance are almost entirely absent” (182-3). This isdoubtless the case, in the popular cinema of both Britain and North America, ifone is to define the depiction of friendship between women in the same wayone would define friendship between men. Marsha McCreadie, for example,confirms this absence of women friends from the classical American movies bydisqualifying certain female relationships from constituting friendship becausethey do not conform to the type of camaraderie and solidarity that often definesmale friendship in the genres mentioned above:Yet women--in movies as in life--have been on their own withouteven the one symbolic friend to strengthen their individualposition. The Gish sisters, Lillian and Dorothy, may have clungdesperately together at moments, but theirs was a bonding offear, not a planned attack on life. Rather than pairing for mutualbenefit, most relations between women have been destructiverather than constructive, as both the early film The Women([George Cukor,] 1939) and the more contemporary The Group([Sidney Lumet,] 1966) show. (McCreadie 39)10Judith Mayne, however, identifies two broad categories of feministcriticism (which she initially distinguishes in chronological terms), the first ofwhich addresses the types of “images of women” offered in film, while thesecond attempts to “read against the grain” of the presentation of those imagesto discover ideological disturbances: “If the early stage [of feminist criticism]was concerned with the absence of real female experience from the screen, thelater stage would consider how that ‘absence’ might better be understood asrepression or displacement” (Women 23). It is precisely the type of film thatMcCreadie mentions that points to the repression or displacement of femalefriendships, through such negative representation. In a society in whichwomen were taught to value heterosexual romance leading to marriage, andthen expected to remain confined to the home caring for children (even as thenumbers of both single and married women in the work force steadilyincreased), there could be little narrative motivation for stories simply aboutwomen’s friendship, as such friendships were considered, at best,“inconsequential alongside the altogether weightier business of securing ahusband” (Thumim 184).Instead of portraying loyal friendships between women, classicalHollywood film often depicts bitter rivalries between women, usually incompetition for a man. More than one central female character does not oftenappear except within the woman’s film of the thirties and forties, and it is thusmost often within this genre that women’s friendships reveal themselvesnegatively. Haskell suggests that the woman’s film can be reduced to fourthematic categories, which she terms “sacrifice, affliction, choice, competition”(163). And, not surprisingly, it is within the last category, competition, that11critics “reading against the grain” have discovered the repressed presence offemale friendship:Frequently, when the rivalry between two women takes placeover a man’s affections, the relationship between the two womenis far more foregrounded than either of the women’s relations tothe man in question. In Old Acquaintance ([Vincent Sherman,]1943) a requisite love triangle operates, but the intense andcomplicated friendship between [Bette] Davis and Miriam Hopkinsprovides far more dramatic fodder than the attraction to the man.(Mayne Cinema 132-133)Other examples of melodramas featuring women’s rivalry--for men, maternalinfluence, or even career—include: The Female of the Species (D.W. Griffith,1912) with Claire McDowell, Mary Pickford and Dorothy Bernard; The Old Maid(Edmund Goulding, 1939) with Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins as her evilcousin; The Great Lie (Edmund Goulding, 1941) with Bette Davis and MaryAstor; Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) with Joan Crawford as the long-suffering mother ultimately pitted against her own evil daughter, played by AnnBlyth; A Woman’s Secret (Nicholas Ray, 1949) with Maureen O’Hara andGloria Grahame; A!! About Eve (Joseph Mankiewicz, 1950) with Bette Davisand Ann Baxter competing for supreme position. in their career; Imitation of Life(Douglas Sirk, 1959) with Lana Turner and Sandra Dee as mother anddaughter in competition for mom’s man; and, more baroquely, WhateverHappened to Baby Jane (Robert Aldrich, 1962), in which Bette Davis victimizesher crippled sister, Joan Crawford, closely followed by Hush, Hush SweetCharlotte (Robert Aldrich, 1965), in which Olivia de Havilland victimizes hercousin, Bette Davis.In some versions of the rival films, the female adversaries are bothplayed by the same actress in a dual role (inaugurated by Mary Pickford as12both the sweet, beautiful Stella and her ugly, murderous servant, Unity Blake,in Stella Mans [Marshall Nelan, 1918]), often playing twins, one of whom triesto take over her sister’s identity, and, of course, steal her sister’s husband orboyfriend in the process: A Stolen Life (Curtis Bernhardt, 1946), starring BetteDavis, and The Dark Mirror (Robert Siodmak, 1946), starring Olivia deHavilland, are examples of this subgenre. The rivals in films of this kind,although played by the same actress, are just as sharply contrasted as theheroine and villainess of the films listed above, one being sweet and good, theother treacherous and amoral. The narrative of “competition” woman’s filmsalmost always privileges the position of one of the women over the other, whois in turn justly punished for her wickedness in keeping the deserving womanaway from her rightful place in the man’s (or child’s) life. In other words, thecontrasting characterization of the women and the film’s narrative resolutionwork to establish a prevalent sense of justice or tragedy as the viewer’sresponse, which determines the “preferred meaning” of the film as a discourseon femininity and female relationships. And usually that preferred meaninginvolves a patriarchal lesson (or warning) about the proper attitude womenshould have toward their (potential) roles as wife, mother or career woman.I use the term “preferred meaning” above to distinguish between themeaning that the text itself seems to present the viewer (unless the vieweractually misreads the film by failing to notice or understand the significance ofinformation provided, she can have no doubt as to which twin in The DarkMirror, for example, is the “good” one, according to the numerous mutuallysupportive discourses that the film provides about the protagonists) and theactual--potentially transgressive--meaning and pleasures the viewer may take13from the film experience (she recognizes that the evil twin is criminal andpossibly insane, but nonetheless identifies more strongly with her as someonewho has been made to feel inadequate her whole life by her sickeningly perfectsister). Thumim discusses the British film, The Wicked Lady (Leslie Arliss,1945), which stars Margaret Lockwood and Patricia Hunt as competing friends,as a narrative which ultimately privileges the sweet, innocent Caroline (Hunt)over the cynical, sexually aggressive Barbara (Lockwood), by rewardingCaroline with marriage to the man she loves and by ultimately punishingBarbara with rape, being rejected by the man she loves, and a lonely death.Thumim cites the following exchange of dialogue between the women insummary of the different ideological positions they represent:Barbara: When you’re married you can have everything youwant. You can fill this house with amusing people. You can go toLondon and become a famous hostess.Caroline: Oh, I don’t think Ralph would care for that.Barbara: A clever woman can make her husband do as she likes.Caroline: But if a woman really loves her husband she’d rather doas he likes.Barbara: Still the same self-sacrificing little ninny. (Thumim 121)Certainly the preferred meaning of the film would advertise the dangers ofBarbara’s transgressive lifestyle, and warn women to follow the safe and happyroute of wifely submissiveness advocated by Caroline. But Thumim also citesevidence that most women seem to have preferred the character of Barbara,enjoying her wickedness more than the dull character of Caroline, and evenemulating some of her features: one viewer recalled that Margaret Lockwood’sbeauty mark ‘was something new, we all started to add them with eye pencil”;and another said, “her adventurous role made every woman feel she would liketo be a wicked lady. My mother, like many others, bought the fashionable14‘Wicked Lady’ style hat” (R. McWiggan and A. Morrow in Thumim 167). Eventhe preferred meaning established in the film’s title--there is no doubt as towhich heroine is “wicked”--is overturned by one viewer, who said she preferredto see Barbara as “a thoroughly bold woman, rather than wicked” (P. Burgessin Thumim 122). Another viewer reported she, “liked the contrast between thegood and bad women, [and] liked the bad one best,” while still anothercommented that, “even though she was evil, I enjoyed the woman scoring overthe males” (D. West and R. Gardner in Thumim 122). This last remark inparticular suggests that the narrative resolution of the film—despite its terribleconsequences for Barbara—does not necessarily negate the impression of her‘scoring over the males’ or the pleasure the female viewers derived from hertransgressive behaviour.Thus, while criticisms of the classical Hollywood cinema’s portrayal of‘friendships” between women—as non-existent, competitive, adversarial, ornegative in some other way—are certainly well-founded in relation to thepreferred meaning of the texts in isolation, the viewers’ pleasure in watchingtwo (often two of the most powerful) female stars struggle, even against eachother, to fulfill their conflicting desires may have nothing to do with the moralitytale offered by the film’s patriarchal discursive strategies. Mayne points to theforegrounding of the women’s relationship over the heterosexual couple’s as apossible site for such transgressive pleasure (132-5); and Haskell similarlysuggests that in many of these “competition” films, “the women [fighting over aman] will discover, without explicitly acknowledging it, that they prefer eachother’s company to his” (164).15And there are other genres of film outside of the ‘competing-for-a-manstructure’ that did (albeit infrequently) allow for the depiction of women’sfriendships in a manner that textually privileges them as (at least partially)positive. During the war, for example, there were films that concentrated ongroups of women, either waiting in solidarity back home for their husbands(Tender Comrade, Edward Dmytryk, 1943) or going off to join the war effort asvolunteers (Cry Havoc, Richard Thorpe, 1943). Backstage musicals alsocreate a narrative situation in which two friends (Dance, Girl, Dance, DorothyArzner, 1940) or groups of women performers, living and working together(Stage Door, Gregory La Cava, 1937), provide each other with moral supportand camaraderie as well as some healthy competition. And, of course, some ofthe most unambiguously positive representations of loyalty and friendshipamong women are found within the gold digger genre, including films such asThe Greeks had a Word for Them or Three Broadway Girls (Lowell Sherman,1932), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953) and How to Marry aMillionaire (Jean Negulesco, 1953). Haskell says of Rosalind Russell andMarilyn Monroe in Gentlemen, “the two girls, strutting their wares, commandawe much like two renowned gun-fighters” (258); and of the gold digger genrein general, she says:With more zeal than self-pity, in contrast to the ‘fallen-woman’confessional films of the thirties, the gold digger didn’t hesitate touse her assets to get ahead and to assert some control over herlife. Not for her the nine-to-five hours of the salesgirl or thelonger ones of the executive. Largely through the support of herpals, the ‘female community’ established to outwit men rather thanto compete with each other, she has the backing and confidenceto do her number. This is one of the few genres and occasionswhere there is a real feeling of solidarity among women. (Haskell145)16It would seem that although representations of friendship among women (in thethirties, forties and fifties) are rarely constructed as completely positive (i.e.ideologically desirable), and even then, only as a poor second choice untilmarriage becomes available as an option (and usually a marriage that willredeem the gold digger from her materialistic ways through a poor but truelove), it is still possible for female viewers to enjoy the central “friendship”among the women characters without necessarily accepting the diminishmentor negation of that relationship in favour of the “happy ending” in the narrative’sresolution. But in spite of this possibility to “read against the grain,” the viewernonetheless recognizes the film’s power to discursively establish what exactlydoes constitute a happy ending for the female characters (in almost all cases inthis period, that is marriage), to construct the “preferred meaning” againstwhich all other meanings and pleasures will be deemed oppositional.The existence of a readily identifiable preferred meaning is one of theelements (in fact, the most important) separating the films of the classicalperiod discussed above from the woman’s films of the mid to late I 970s, whichappeared after a decade of cinema that did not explicitly address the women’smarket. On this subject, Judith Mayne suggests:When we read Hollywood films of the 1940s against the grain, there is aprocess of genuine discovery at work, a sense in which the apparentinnocence and transparence of the film image is revealed to besomething else altogether. With the contemporary cinema, however,something has changed. It seems curiously inappropriate to propose areading of these films against the grain, since so often this conformsquite closely to the spirit in which the films have been produced,exhibited, and received. A dominant trait of the contemporary Americancinema is its seemingly overt recognition of diversity. Modern filmsseem to promise something for everyone.... (Mayne Women 35-36)17This group of films, which includes A Woman Under the Influence (JohnCassavetes, 1974), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Martin Scorcese, 1975),Julia (Fred Zinneman, 1977), The Turning Point (Herbert Ross, 1977),Girlfriends (Claudia Weill, 1978), An Unmarried Woman (Paul Mazursky, 1978),(according to some) Coma (Michael Crichton, 1978), and Starting Over (Alan J.Pakula, 1979), for example, was dubbed the “new women’s cinema” by AnnetteKuhn in 1982 (Kuhn 125), and disparagingly described by Haskell as a “trickleof feminist-inspired movies” (375). Most critics agree with Kuhn’s originalassessment that the most salient common feature of these films is the “extremeambiguity of the[ir] politics and address.., as part of an attempt both to cater fornewly defined audiences and maximize box office appeal” (Brunsdon 123-4).Kuhn argues that although the New Hollywood cinema of the 1 970s isgenerally prone to a lack of traditional narrative closure, the new women’scinema is even more likely to adopt such strategies of openness, as it wouldotherwise risk alienating some potential consumers of the films by taking up acoherent position in relation to the women’s issues raised, that is, by overtlyarticulating a clear “preferred meaning” vis a vis feminism: “Films whoseaddress sustains a degree of polysemy--which open up rather than restrictpotential readings, in other words--may appeal to a relatively broadly-basedaudience. Openness permits readings to be made which accord more or lesswith spectators’ prior stances on feminist issues” (Kuhn 129).While the heroines of both Alice Doesn’t Uve Here Anymore and AnUnmarried Woman are depicted as having supportive female friends, criticalresponse to these friendships has been divided. Many critics find that Alice’sfriendship with Flo is the best thing about Alice, and thus fault the film for18according too little attention to this relationship, compared to Alice’s eventualromantic involvement. Critical response to the friends in An Unmarried Womanis less consistent, some praising the portrayal of more ‘ordinary’ types ofwomen or the “profemale” quality of the group’s friendship (Kolker 137), whileothers quite harshly complain that “the three buddies, or, rather, biddies,• .function as a chorus almost as unfortunately as do the grotesques in LinaWertmuller’s The End of the World in Our Usual Bed in a Night Full ofRain[1 978]” (Mellen 534). And a similarly mixed reaction has greeted Julia,The Turning Point, and Girlfriends, the three new women’s films that depict afemale friendship as the central, almost exclusive, topic of the film’s narrative.While certain of these films have been praised by individual critics, they havejust as frequently been characterized as reactionary. Joan Mellen, for example,reads Julia as suggesting that “[f]riendship between women is dangerous,” dueto the narrative’s implication of a possible lesbian relationship between Lillyand Julia, coupled with the text’s overly vehement denial of this possibility(533). Mellen also states that “far from friendship, The Turning Point posits anatural enmity between women” (533); that the film is “reactionary” insuggesting that career and marriage must be mutually exclusive, and that inchoosing between the two, the film privileges “the tired cliché that morehappiness resides in the home” (526). While Molly Haskell does not seem tolike this film (or the other new women’s films featuring women’s friendships)much more than Mellen, it is interesting to note that Haskell reads the“message” of the film in exactly the opposite way, suggesting that “whereearlier movies had forced women to abandon their careers in favour ofmarriage, the newer movies, like the Bancroft-MacLaine The Turning Point,19took the side of the career woman” (390). This type of widespread criticaldisagreement speaks to the new woman’s cinema’s dogged refusal to establisha preferred reading, either “reactionary” or “progressive,” in relation to thefeminist issues of the seventies (e.g. career versus marriage) represented inthese films. Instead, as Kuhn suggests, the narratives maintain a structuredambiguity “on the verge of incoherence in their eagerness to speaksimultaneously to as many ticket-buyers as possible” (Brunsdon 5), allowingviewers to select a meaning from the text in accordance with their “priorstances on feminist issues” (Kuhn 129):Julia illustrates this point quite well: while lesbians may be free toread the film as an affirmation of lesbianism, such a reading—justas it is not ruled out—is by no means privileged by the text.Girlfriends works similarly with regard to the question of feminism.On its release, the film was widely received as charming, warm,amusing and likeable. It was not regarded as threatening largelybecause, despite its status as a female ‘buddy’ film, it does notdemand a reading as a feminist film. Nevertheless, at the sametime, the ‘buddy’ structure can equally well justify a reading of thefilm in terms of woman-identification” (Kuhn 129).Kuhn thus concludes: “Whatever possible identifications it offers to those whochoose to make them, new women’s cinema cannot in the final instance deal inany direct way with the questions which feminism poses for cinematicrepresentation” (129-30).This group of “feminist-inspired” films depicting female friendship is themost recent historical precursor for the group of female buddy films that I shalldiscuss in chapter three. It is interesting to note, in this regard, that many ofthe critics of the new women’s cinema mention the similarity of some of the newwomen’s films to the male buddy films of the late I 960s and early I 970s, asKuhn does above in relation to Girlfriends. Whereas Kuhn suggests that the20film is unthreatening “despite its status as a female ‘buddy film” (129, myemphasis), other critics have linked the term “buddy” to what they see asstronger textually determined meanings in the films. Although a more fullydeveloped hybrid of the male buddy film and the woman’s film emerged onlywithin the last ten years, much of the critical discourse surrounding the newwomen’s cinema wrestles with the idea of the “buddy” influence on thedepiction of women’s friendships, probably due, once again, to the extremeideological incoherence or ambivalence found in both types of films. JoanMellen brings up the sexual ambiguity of the male buddy film as it relates towhat she sees, at best, as an unnecessarily confused depiction of the nature ofthe two women’s friendship in Julia (532). Mellen also feels that these newwomen’s films rely too much on the “clichés of the male buddy film, as in thecat fight between Maclame and Bancroft. To some degree they return to theideology of the woman’s picture wherein women are competitive and hostiletoward each other, inherently incapable of sustained friendship” (535). Kolker,on the other hand, characterizes the women’s relationships in Alice and AnUnmarried Woman progressively, as “a special response to the ‘male-bonding’or ‘buddy’ films,” insofar as the former do not need to “deny males” or be“antimale” in order to be “profemale,” in contrast to the way in which malebuddy films have historically marginalized and mistreated female characters(137). While the idea of the politically threatening potential of the femalebuddy film; of the sexual ambiguity that buddy films can accommodate orcreate; of the disjunctive conflict between generic conventions of male buddyfilms and the ideology of the woman’s film; and of the progressive potential ofshifting female characters to the centre of the buddy film genre have all been21alluded to in relation to the new women’s cinema, these films nonetheless havevery little to do with the “progressive narrative paradigm of male buddy films,which I shall outline in the next chapter.22CHAPTER 2A New Genre: From Male Buddies to Female FriendsThe emergence in the I 980s of a group of films which concentrate onthe relationship between two female friends can be understood as stemmingfrom two seemingly contradictory generic trends of the I 970s: the “newwomen’s cinema” (Kuhn 135), mentioned in the previous chapter, and the(male) buddy film. In terms of generic affiliation, the new women’s cinema, asKuhn’s dubbing of these films suggests, has strong ties to the traditionalmelodrama or “woman’s film;” whereas the buddy films of the I 970s usuallyrepresent a variant of traditional “male” genres, such as the Western or action-adventure film. And while many feminist critics are not entirely enthusiasticabout the ideological implications of the new women’s cinema (Brunsdon 119,Geraghty 138-145, Haskell 375-381, Mellen 525), they are generally far lessambivalent about the extreme sexism or misogyny inherent in the buddy films ofthe same period. Robert Phillip Kolker, for example, states that, “The ‘buddy’film is explicitly antifemale, denying women (and its latent homosexuality aswell), celebrating male victory over the bothersome other” (137).But while the new women’s cinema and male buddy films seemdiametrically opposed in many ways, they can be seen as embodying similarideological impulses, albeit expressed through completely different techniquesand aimed at different movie audiences. Throughout his book, Hollywood FromVietnam to Reagan (1986), Robin Wood discusses these films of the seventiesas representing a gesture toward (but never a full realization of) greaterideological “progressiveness,” which he implicitly defines as a loosening oftraditional gender roles, coupled with the displacement of traditional,23heterosexist notions of sexual orientation in favour of the recognition of“constitutional bisexuality” (222). In spite of their particular ideologicallimitations (which Wood acknowledges and which I shall discuss below), Woodconsiders both the films of the new women’s cinema and the male buddy filmsas mapping a route toward such progressiveness--as raising the possibility ofchallenging or problematizing traditional ideals--before being quickly answeredby the extremely conservative or even reactionary generic trends of the earlyI 980s.Like most critics writing on the films of the new women’s cinema, Woodbases his evaluation of the films’ progressive1“success” in relation to thegeneral ideals of feminism as a political movement. Indeed, Wood argues thatit is the absence of any acknowledgement within these films of an organized,women’s movement which most severely limits their potential as feminist texts(202-3). He notes that any inclusion of “feminism” as a discourse in Hollywoodfilms is contingent upon the complete repression of “politics” in favour of itsmore personal dimensions (Wood 202). In other words, the films of the newwomen’s cinema do not address the oppression of women as a group, andinstead depict individual women who feel constrained by their personalcircumstances (Wood 202). Wood explains that this failure to implicate thelarger social structure of patriarchy which determines women’s “personal”circumstances demonstrates Hollywood’s traditional reluctance to take aradical position vis a vis the existing social order: “A social problem, explicitlystated, must always be one that can be resolved within the existing system, i.e.patriarchal capitalism; the real problems, which can’t, can only be dramatizedobliquely, and very likely unconsciously, within the entertainment movie” (202).24As evidence of the ideological limitations of the self-declared “feminist”content of the new women’s cinema, Wood compares the common structure oftwo of the most discussed of these films, An Unmarried Woman (PaulMazursky, 1978) and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Martin Scorsese,1974). In both films, the central female character loses her husband andattempts to pursue a career while raising a child alone. And each of theseheroines ultimately finds, “a non-oppressive male to whom she can relate onequal terms and with whom she develops a satisfying, if troubled, relationship”(Wood 204). While the commonalities of the two films’ plot trajectories maysuggest a growing sense of importance being accorded to some of theproblems women may face under patriarchal society, Wood points out that thisshared structure--particularly the films’ resolution--”defines the limits of theideologically acceptable, the limits that render feminism safe” (202-203).According to Wood, feminism is rendered safe in these two films through theheroines’ ultimate return to a stable, heterosexual relationship based onpersonal “equality” between two individuals, rather than a politically conscious“liberation” from such conventional (narrative and personal) closure:The films share a certain deviousness. On the explicit level, bothpreserve a determined ambiguity, refusing to guarantee thepermanence of the happy ending. Yet the final effect is of a hugecommunal sigh of relief: the women don’t have to be independentafter all; there are strong, protective males to look after them.Their demand for independence is accordingly reduced to tokengesture.... The “nonoppressiveness” and the “equality,” thoughheavily signaled, are also extremely problematic, existing purelyon the personal level in terms of sympathetic individual men andnever clearly examined in terms of social positions. (204)It is not necessarily the fact of a film ending in marriage or its equivalentstate to which Wood objects, however. It is, rather, the fact that such an25ending is so often seen as the only viable conclusion (in Hollywood and in life)for any story centred on a woman protagonist (even a story with “feminist”pretensions), in order for the story to be considered “happy” or fully resolved.While Girl Friends (Claudia Weill, 1978) also resolves itself with one of the titlecharacters getting married and that relationship displacing the friendship of thetwo women, Wood notes a key difference in this film’s discursive attitudetowards these events, as compared to other films of the new women’s cinema:Girl Friends presents marriage as patriarchy’s means ofcontaining and separating women.... [P]redominantly comic intone but taking up the themes (marriage vs. career, etc.) of the“woman’s melodrama,” [the film] ends on a note of regret at theformation of the heterosexual couple rather than the traditionalglow of relief and satisfaction” (Wood 212).Girl Friends thus wins Wood’s (partial) praise as “the only Americancommercial movie [he] can think of that explicitly calls marriage as an institutioninto question, as opposed to admitting that there are unsuccessful marriages”(211), despite the fact that it, like the new women’s cinema as a whole, doesnot explicitly recognize women’s oppression as a group or “the existence of apolitical women’s movement” (Wood 211).Wood considers the progressiveness or feminist achievement of the newwomen’s cinema to be extremely limited and “precarious,” noting that the smallgains made by these films in the seventies were quickly dismissed by theeighties’ “antifeminism” (206). He discusses the narratives of this latter trend infilm as those which “teach the woman to be fully complicit in her ownoppression” (206); in which “the principles of feminism [are] reduced to thedemand to participate in the violent rites of masculinity” (206); or which “[use] awoman to denounce other women” (207). Wood suggests that feminism’s26impact on Hollywood can best be observed, not positively, in the films of thenew women’s cinema, for example, but negatively, in:a massive retaliation (ranging from the shameless grossness ofthe mad slasher movie to the far more insidious reinstatement ofcompliant women to their safe, traditional roles enacted in filmslike An Officer and a Gentleman and Terms of Endearment) thattestifies at least to the magnitude of [feminism’s] threat (Wood208).Many critics have come to regard the emergence of the male buddy filmas part of this retaliation or “backlash” against the second wave of feminism, asthese films unapologetically dispense with the traditional narrative importanceof women altogether, rather than attempting to deal with their changing socialpositioning during the I 970s. Wood, too, recognizes that the popularity ofthese buddy films may in part stem from “the contemporary ‘heterosexual’ maleaudience’s need to denigrate and marginalize women” (230), as a response tothe threat feminism poses to patriarchal order. But he also suggests that thesefilms speak to this same audience’s “unconscious but immensely powerful needto validate love relationships between men” (Wood 230). This latter appeal to“straight” male viewers is more radical and potentially more liberating, forWood, as the homoeroticism of (some) buddy films defies dominant sexualidentity as it is naturalized in social practices such as mainstream cinema, andpoints to an “innate bisexuality,” or at least foregrounds its cultural repression(Wood I). In other words, while Wood acknowledges that buddy films can beconsidered as part of the negative reaction against feminism’s challenges tothe traditional values of a male-centred society, he contends that these films insome ways support such challenges to dominant ideology, by equally rejectingthe dictates of “normality,” as represented by ideals such as marriage, family27and home (227). Wood suggests, in fact, that the motivating premise of thebuddy film is not the male relationship in and of itself, but rather, the absenceof “home” (227-228). “Home” is to be understood here as a locus of traditionalvalues which define and stabilize the patriarchal order. And as Hollywoodcinema has traditionally constructed women as representatives of “home” ingeneral, and of the possibility of closure and a “happy ending” throughmarriage in particular, it is hardly surprising that they are relegated tomarginalized roles in these stories of male social rebellion.Wood cites Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill,1969), Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) and Midnight Cowboy (JohnSchlesinger, 1969) as the movies which initiated this cycle of buddy films; andThunderbolt and Lightfoot (Michael Cimino, 1974), Scarecrow (JerrySchatzberg, 1973), and California Split (Robert Altman, 1974) as later examplesof this trend. With certain exceptions or variations, these films share six traitswhich Wood identifies as integral to the buddy genre (227-229). The first ofthese commonalities is the journey motif, which is either overtly depicted andthus provides the structure of the film’s action (in Butch Cassidy, Thunderbolt,and Easy Rider, for example), or is implied, in that the film’s single setting (LasVegas in California Split, and New York in Midnight Cowboy) is representativeof a stage in an undepicted journey (Wood 227-8). The importance of thejourney in each case, however, rests on the fact that it either “has no goal or itsostensible goal proves illusory” (Wood 228).A second characteristic that the buddy films share is the marginalizationof women in the story. Wood notes that of the six films he discusses, onlyButch Cassidy has a semi-central “leading lady” (Katharine Ross), and even28she disappears from the narrative part way through the protagonists’ journey(228). More often, female characters “are merely present for casualencounters en route, ‘chicks’ for the boys to pick up and put down” (228).According to Wood, the importance of this marginalization of women in thebuddy films is that it disallows the possibility of “woman-as-wife to provide ahappy end” (228).Wood additionally suggests that the casual encounters the womenprovide also function as a confirmation of the buddies’ heterosexuality, or moreaccurately, as a denial of their homosexuality. This denial is oftenoverdetermined in the films through a third characteristic they share: thepresence of an explicitly gay character, who is presented as a villain or a clown(Wood 229). These overtly homosexual characters (in Midnight Cowboy,California Spilt, and Scarecrow, for example) “[have] the function of adisclaimer--our boys are not like that” (Wood 229). Wood asserts that theinsistent sexual conquest of minor female characters and the negativedepiction of gay characters in these movies support (more strongly than anyliteral or symbolic intimacies between the buddies) a reading of the films as,“surreptitious gay texts”: “by finding it necessary to deny the homosexualnature of the central relationship so strenuously, the films actually succeed indrawing attention to its possibility” (Wood 229).A fourth trait which the buddy films share is the absence of home, wherehome is “understood not merely as a physical location but both as a state ofmind and an ideological construct, above all as ideological secunty. Ultimately,home is America...” (Wood 228). Wood suggests that the ideological crisisrepresented by the lack of “home” in these films is the product of the collective29loss of confidence in America as “home” following the Vietnam war and theWatergate scandal. He later goes on to suggest that the concept “home” couldequally be termed “normality.” What is absent(ed) from these films, then, is notonly “home” as a site of ideological security, but also the fundamental elementsof the patriarchal social order which constitute “normality”: “the heterosexualromance, monogamy, the family, the perpetuation of the status quo, the Law ofthe Father” (Wood 229).Perhaps the most obvious way in which the standards of “normality” arethwarted in the buddy films is through their fifth shared feature, the narrativefocus on what Wood calls “the male love story” (228). Buddy films, bydefinition, are about a relationship between two men, and this relationship isalways at the centre of the films’ emotional core. This narrative focus on twomen “stands in direct opposition to the usual account of the ClassicalHollywood text in terms of the happy ending in heterosexual union, promisingthe continuance of the nuclear family” (Wood 228). If buddy films disallow the“normal” closure provided by heterosexual marriage and the beginning of afamily, the consummation (or even the continuation) of the buddies “aberrant”relationship is in turn disallowed by the circumscribing conventions ofHollywood, which nonetheless demand some kind of “safe” closure. It is forthis reason that so many of the buddy films share a sixth (and final)characteristic: the ultimate death (or severe debilitation) of one or both of themale buddies (229). Wood suggests that the generalized “collapse ofconfidence in normality” (241) during the seventies allowed American film--”acinema by men and primarily for men” (230)--to create a genre, the buddy film,with appealing:30male protagonists, identification figures for the male audience,the efficient socialization of whose sexuality can no longer be agiven. The characters themselves are, of course, withoutexception social outcasts, voluntary dropouts; frequentlycriminals, they have placed themselves outside the pressures ofpatriarchy, which are all that stand in the way of the recognitionand acceptance of constitutional bisexuality. They are also theprotagonists of films made within an overwhelmingly patriarchalindustry: hence they must finally be definitively separated,preferably by death. The films belong not only to social historybut to social progress. (Wood 230)There are, obviously, inherent difficulties for feminist critics in deemingthe marginalization and/or mistreatment of women in a group of films as part of,or even as in support of, any kind of “social progress.” A film which is“liberating” for men, in that it attacks patriarchal values which limit men’soptions (in relation to gender or sexual identity), is not necessarily liberating forwomen, of course. And the buddy movie’s dismantling of the viability of theconcept of “home” and all the social constraints it implies is certainly not aprogressive step for feminism if the women are given no choice but to staybehind—at home, and embodying “home”--and are thus excluded fromparticipation in, or benefiting from, this abandonment of traditional social roles.Buddy films might ideally celebrate a homoerotic defiance of dominant genderand sexual roles, while critiquing the patriarchal social order’s placement ofmen in relation to women. But in reality, they more often seem to selfindulgently glorify the tragic rebellion of two men against the rules of a worldthey themselves have created, while blaming or abusing women along the way,because women have been constructed under patriarchy as representatives ofthe social rigidity which the buddies (who are dropouts or outcasts) have cometo resent.31Similarly, it is difficult to say unequivocally that all of these films can beread (except “against the grain”2, in terms of their structured ambiguities ormoments of incoherence) as suggesting the “progressiveness” of disposingwith or rejecting “home,” as Wood implies. In fact, although Wood makes aconvincing case for the inherent textual “progressiveness” of Thunderbolt andLightfoot through sustained analysis, it seems to me that most buddy films ofthis period could more probably be read as being deeply imbued with a senseof regret for the passing of better (i.e. more ideologically stable) days; asdespairing of the absence of “home”; and/or as disillusioned by thedisintegration of America’s traditional values and gender roles. Certainly, thereis a strong sense of loss and nostalgia in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,and a great deal of cynical, male youth-angst informing the buddies’ journey inEasy Rider, for example, neither of which can be easily explained ascelebrating the collapse of normality as “progressive.” But I do not intend toargue with Wood’s general premise, case by case, for each of the films hementions. I am merely suggesting that Wood’s discussion of the buddy films’more conservative qualities is somewhat more forgiving than thorough. And ifthe regretful tone of Girl Friends toward the eventual marriage of one of itsprotagonists defines its ideological progressiveness for Wood, it should followthat the tone of regret for the loss of “home,” which informs many of the buddyfilms, should equally define their ideological limitations.I nonetheless agree with Wood’s overarching claim that this pointedabsence of homelnormality (regardless of the films’ apparent discursive attitudetoward that absence) places the buddy films of the I 970s within a cycle of(albeit limited) social “progress,” akin to that of the new women’s cinema’s32somewhat ambiguous (re)examination of home/family and women’s placewithin it. And just as these latter films were displaced in the I 980s by whatWood terms “Hollywood antifeminism,” so the ideological fissures created bybuddy films (which both invoked and disowned the possibility of constitutionalbisexuality) were quickly cemented over by the far more conservative films ofthe early I 980s, which overtly depict gay love relationships (Wood 237-244):The background to the 70s buddy movies was, we have seen, thecollapse of the concept of home, with all its complex associations;the background to the 80s gay movies is, precisely, its restorationand reaffirmation, an operation that makes clear the extent towhich the restoration of home is synonymous with the restorationof the symbolic Father. (The Father may either forbid or permit;the permitting is just as authoritarian as the forbidding.) (Wood241)Wood discusses Making Love (Arthur Hiller, 1982), VictorMctoria (BlakeEdwards, 1982), and (more peripherally) Silkwood (Mike Nichols, 1983) in thislight. He mentions some positive aspects of these films’ depiction ofhomosexuality, but ultimately finds them complicit with dominant ideology’sinsistence on definitively separating homosexuality from heterosexuality asnecessarily oppositional “tendencies,” and its insistence on ranking these twoopposed sexual orientations in a hierarchy of liberal “values” which place theheterosexual man in a superior position, aligned with the symbolic Father(Wood 242):[T]he ultimate and insidious ideological function of these films isto close off the implications of a threatening, antipatriarchalbisexuality that were opened surreptitiously in the 70s[’ buddyfilms]. (Wood 243-4)I have considered in some detail Wood’s views on new women’scinema, male buddy films of the I 970s and the more ideologically conservative33films that he feels have supplanted them in the I 980s, because I wish to returnto his arguments to establish the parameters of debate in subsequent chapters.His analysis (I believe, accurately) points to a general shift from the tentativelycontestational cycles of film in the I 970s to the unambiguous glorification ofdominant ideology in mainstream films of the Reagan era. But while this lattertype of movie-making has by no means disappeared (or even been counterbalanced, for that matter), the reality of commercial film production of the lastten years may not be as completely bleak as Wood’s description of therelentlessly oppressive early eighties might suggest. Published in 1986,Wood’s book preceded the burgeoning of a group of films in the mid to lateeighties and early nineties that deal with the relationship between two femalefriends as the emotional core of the narrative, and which have as much incommon with the generic formula of Wood’s buddy films as they do with themelodramatic concerns of the new women’s cinema.In a chapter titled “Female Bonding,” in her 1990 book on the portrayalof women in films of the I 970s and I 980s, Marsha McCreadie notes that “anextraordinary occurrence took place in the mid-I 980s: women, for the first timein popular media, started to underpin rather than undermine each other’ (39).Silkwood (Mike Nichols 1983), Swing Shift (Jonathan Demme, 1984), The ColorPurple (Steven Spielberg, 1985), Crimes of the Heart (Bruce Beresford, 1986),Hannah and her Sisters (Woody Allen, 1986), Just Between Friends (AllanBurns, 1986), and Outrageous Fortune (Arthur Hiller, 1987) are among thefilms she reviews as examples of this “female bonding” (McCreadie 39-53).The feminine rapport depicted in these films can be thought of as at leastsuperficially different than the relationships between women in the classical34period of Hollywood cinema, in that the women are not necessarily contrastedin order to establish a dichotomy of good and evil, and there are a greaternumber of admissable ways that narrative dilemmas may be resolved. Forexample, in recent films in which women share a man, the loyalty between thewomen can sometimes supercede the relationship with the man. This is not tosay, however, that such plot diversity necessarily acts as an ideologicalcorrective to the woman’s film of the thirties and forties. In contrast to themajority of the films listed above, which could easily be viewed as variations ontraditional family melodrama, Outrageous Fortune “served as an analogue forfuture films about women ‘buddy’ teams” (McCreadie 53), and thus inauguratedthe recent generic hybrid between “women’s films”3and “buddy films.”The emergence of women’s buddy films, or female friendship films, as Ishall sometimes call them, seems to offer the possibility of reopening theideological fissures created by the new women’s cinema and male buddy films,in relation both to “women’s issues” and to “home” as a matrix of hegemonicdiscourses. The combination and modification of these two movements of theI 970s suggests the additional potential for recent female friendship films tosupercede some of the ideological limitations ascribed to their constituentgenres by Wood (and other critics), as discussed above. In particular, the ideaof replacing the male buddies with women holds out the possibility for a moreexplicitly feminist critique of patriarchy, as well as avoiding the misogynisticimpulses that have drastically undermined the male buddy films’ progressivecritique of dominant ideology. But it is also possible, of course, that suchgeneric blending might expose or reproduce different (perhaps unique)ideological problems altogether. While certain female buddy films indicate the35potential progressiveness of this new genre, as a group they have failed torealize their promise of a popular feminist discourse. In the next chapter, I shalldiscuss the strengths and weaknesses of three recent female friendship films ina point by point comparison of the “progressive” elements of Wood’s buddy filmmodel, as a means of demonstrating how this progressiveness has been recastin relation to the woman’s film, and in some cases, diminished as a result.36Notes to Chapter 21. I shall discuss the notion of the “progressive” or “reactionary” text and thecritical usefulness of such appellations in chapter 5, but in the meantime,provisionally make use of such terms as they relate to Wood’sdiscussion of the films at hand.2. There are, of course, theoretical (as well as linguistic) problems associatedwith attributing “intended meaning” or “voice” to a film text itself, or evento its real or implied author; but extricating inherent meaning ordiscursive voice from the text and attributing it to the will of a critic (asphrases such as “reading against the grain” imply) or individualaudience members can be equally problematic. I shall return to theseissues in more depth in chapter five.3. Outrageous Fortune itself can only be considered as indebted to the“woman’s film” in that its protagonists are both women and begin theirrelationship in romantic competition for the film’s villain, It isnonetheless more accurately a road movie and a comedy-adventure film,which are almost always cast with male heroes.37CHAPTER 3Three Recent Women’s Buddy FilmsIn describing the absence of leading female roles, heterosexualromance, and the woman’s film from American movie theatres during the latesixties and early seventies, Molly Haskell suggests that this absence can alsobe seen as a (sexist) appropriation, as male buddy films began clawing backmuch of this traditionally ILfemininehl territory:It is the rapport between Newman and Redford in Butch Cassidyrather than between either one of them and Katharine Ross, thathas all the staples--the love and loyalty, the yearning andspirituality, the eroticism sublimated in action and banter, thefutility and fatalism, the willingness to die for someone--ofwomen’s fantasies as traditionally celebrated by the woman’s film.(Haskell 187-8)Recent female buddy films equally employ the same-sex dynamics that Haskelldescribes above, but at the same time, these films cast women as friends, andthus allow for the reappropriation of some of the emotional terrain of thewoman’s film within films for women. But unlike modern versions of thewoman’s film, such as Beaches (Gary Marshall, 1988), Steel Magnolias(Herbert Ross, 1989) and The Joy Luck Club (Wayne Wang, 1993), femalebuddy films distance their heroines from the tear-stained settings of familymelodrama, and instead place them within (a modified version of) the narrativeparadigm that I have outlined in the previous chapter. While no cinematicpractice or formula remains progressive for all times or for all audiences (and itis certainly problematic to consider many of the sexist strategies of the originalmale buddy films as ‘progressive’ in any case), three films of the I 990s, incombining elements of the woman’s film and the buddy film, attempt to capture38a spirit of adventure and social rebellion akin to that of the male buddy films oftwenty years ago.Thelma arid Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991), Fried Green Tomatoes (JonAvnet, 1991), and Leaving Normal (Edward Zwick, 1992) each tell the story ofa friendship between two women that in some way transgresses society’s(patriarchy’s) values andlor behavioural strictures. In all three films, one of theheroines leaves her physically or verbally abusive husband and joins her friendin a comic-tragic adventure of some kind, ultimately leading to the two women’sexplicit commitment to each other and to a radical change in their lives’previous trajectory. In Thelma and Louise, two friends go away for a weekendfishing trip without the knowledge of Thelma’s husband or Louise’s boyfriend,but when the women kill a man who tries to rape Thelma, they decide not toreturn home or face the police, and instead go on a desperate crime spree andjoyride toward freedom in Mexico, finally deciding to drive off a cliff to theirdeaths rather than be taken in by the surrounding forces of the law. FriedGreen Tomatoes is about a middle-aged housewife, Evelyn, who listens to anold lady’s mysterious tale (presented intermittently in flashbacks over thecourse of many visits to the lady’s nursing home) of the adventures of twoyoung women friends, Ruth and Idgie, who were suspected, many years ago,of murdering Ruth’s violent, estranged husband, in the old woman’s hometown. The old woman, Mrs. Threadgoode, reveals that although neither of thewomen actually was guilty of the crime, Idgie did conspire to conceal themurder, and even cooked and served the body in the cafe that she and Ruthran together. Evelyn is enthralled by the story, develops a friendship with Mrs.Threadgoode, and decides to take her out of the nursing home to live with her,39finally suspecting that her elderly friend may be none other than the aged Idgie.In Leaving Normal, Marianne, a confused young woman who has just left herabusive husband, meets Darly, a cynical older woman who is abandoning herpresent life to travel to property she has inherited in Alaska. They tell oneanother about the many mistakes they have each made in the past, sharenumerous strange encounters and twists of fate along the road, and after muchemotional turmoil, they decide to stay in Alaska and make a home together.In addition to sharing these similarities in plot elements, however, thesethree films also correspond in similar ways to Wood’s itemization of thethematic characteristics of the male buddy film. With the exception of one ofthe features (found in only three) of the male buddy films--the presence ofexplicitly gay characters as a disclaimer for the central buddies’ relationship--the three female buddy films in question propose some version of each of thesix other elements that Wood identifies, although the female films sometimesresolve the contradictions that these elements suggest in a different way. Forexample, although I have just stated that none of the women’s buddy filmspresents an explicitly gay character as a means of stressing the heterosexuality(or denying the possibility of the homosexuality) of the heroines, LeavingNormal does make reference to homosexuality in a manner that creates theopposite effect to that of its overt representation in some male buddy films.When the two women spend the night at Marianne’s sisters home, in thebedroom of her young son, they laugh at the over-determined “masculine”decor of the room (complete with a bedspread with a giant professionalwrestler on it) as revealing the parents’ fear that their son could one day begay. Darly says, “This place has ‘please god, don’t let my son be a fag’ written40all over it,” to which Marianne replies, “Well, I’m not sure if spending theformative years sleeping under a large, sweaty wrestler will do the trick.”While not necessarily affirming homosexuality, it is the heterosexual, paranoidparents (rather than a gay character) who are portrayed here as “villains” or“clowns.” This type of rather ambiguous “progressiveness” informs the femalebuddy films’ stance on many aspects of Wood’s argument, as I shall outlinebelow.BUDDIES AS OUTCASTSOne characteristic that all three female buddy films share with theoriginal buddy films is the status of the heroines as criminals, dropouts or socialoutcasts. While Thelma and Louise begin as unextraordinary, law-abidingAmerican citizens (a housewife and a waitress, respectively), they very quicklybecome fugitives from the law, wanted for the shooting of the rapist, Harlan.They continue to add to their crimes, committing armed robbery to pay for theirplanned escape to Mexico, locking a state trooper in the trunk of his own patrolcar to prevent him from radioing in their license plate number, and blowing up atanker truck when the sexist driver refuses to apologize for his harassment ofthe women. Of course, unlike the criminals of Butch Cassidy and theSundance Kid, for example, Thelma and Louise are only circumstantialcriminals, and the film frequently exploits the discrepancy between theirextreme actions and their conservative, law-abiding nature for comedy. AfterThelma holds up the convenience store, for example, she and Louise laughwith exhilaration about putting some distance between themselves and thescene of their last crime; but when Thelma throws one of the miniature bottlesof Wild Turkey out of the car, Louise reprimands her for littering. Similarly,41when they take the state trooper captive, they apologize for their actions,explaining that this sort of thing would normally be quite unlike them. WhenThelma instructs Louise to shoot out the patrol car’s radio, she shoots thestereo system in the car, not realizing that Thelma meant the police radio; andalthough they are holding the policeman at gunpoint and have already stolenhis beer and his belt (for the ammunition), Louise nonetheless asks him if shecan trade sunglasses with him, rather than just taking them.Thelma and Louise encourages us to see its heroines as not really beingcriminals, and uses these comic devices to construct the film’s central irony,which informs the tragedy of the ending. Because the extremity of the women’scrimes has been comically deflated, and thus come to seem understandable,charming or even heroic, the severity of the police reaction to them, in contrast,seems completely unwarranted. Surrounded by a vast number of police cars,with the SWAT team holding them in their rifle sights and a helicopter hoveringover them, Thelma remarks, “It looks like the army,” and Louise asks, “All thisfor us?” The sympathetic cop, Hal, who has been following the circumstancesof the women’s flight from the law, sums up the attitude encouraged by thefilm’s discursive strategies when he pleads with the FBI agent in charge, “Howmany times, Max? How many times these women gonna be fucked over?” Inthis way, the film invites us to share the women’s perspective on events, and tosee them as victimized outcasts rather than criminals per Se: they feel thatthey are forced to become fugitives from legal and social order, based onLouise’s past experience with the lack of justice for rape victims, which isalluded to throughout the film.42Fried Green Tomatoes also portrays its heroines (of the flashback buddystory) as dropouts from polite society, and holds out the possibility, until verynear the end of the film, that Idgie may also be a murderer. Even as a child,Idgie does not fit into her place in the family, as she refuses to dress andbehave as a demure little girl should. As a young woman, she leaves herfamily home and adopts a rambling lifestyle, drinking, gambling and fightingwith the men in a speakeasy on the outskirts of town. One night, she and Ruthget drunk together there and play baseball in the dark, and on anotheroccasion, the two friends jump aboard a train and steal the food aboard,throwing it from the boxcar to the poor people living in the shantytowns alongthe tracks. After Ruth leaves her husband, Frank, she and ldgie open a cafetogether, in a time when women did not work outside the home, let alone runtheir own businesses without men, and further defy public opinion in a town fullof Klansmen by serving blacks there, too. And they also befriend other socialoutcasts, including their black employees and the poor, town drunk. Althoughldgie stands trial for murder and is only acquitted based on the local preacherproviding her with an alibi that we know to be false, it is ultimately revealed thatshe helps to dispose of the body in order to protect one of her black servants,Sipsey (who killed Frank to prevent him from kidnapping Ruth’s baby), from theracist justice system of a small, southern town. In this way, Ruth and Idgie arepresented as extraordinary individuals whose relationship and transgressivebehaviour stand as a challenge to the repressive values of their social milieu.In Leaving Normal, while Marianne and Darly are not exactly criminals oroutcasts of society, they are both rootless dropouts running away from a stringof failed marriages, jobs and homes. Marianne traces her failures on a map,43pointing out the places where she left college, left the army and left her threemarriages, before meeting Darly. Darly has just quit her job at a sleazy bar ona note of bitterness and animosity. She tries to give a female coworker a gift,as an apology for having slept with the woman’s husband, but her gesture iscoldly rejected. And we later learn that the place in Alaska that Darly isreturning to is the scene of what she takes to be the worst failure of her life:her abandonment of her baby daughter at the town hospital many years ago.As the two women travel together, they meet other marginal characters, suchas the two misfit truck drivers, one of whom weeps reading Steinbeck novels,and the fat, downtrodden waitress known as “Sixty-six,” who gets fired from hermiserable job, and briefly joins the buddies on their trip. The film thus presentsDarly and Marianne as dropouts, insofar as they are among life’s comic-tragic,aimlessly drifting victims and losers. In this way, all three female buddy filmsroughly correspond to Wood’s argument about the marginal social identities ofthe male buddies.MARGINALIZED MENAnother commonality among Thelma and Louise, Fried GreenTomatoes, and Leaving Normal is that all three films marginalize men in amanner reminiscent of, but by no means as extreme as, the male buddy films’marginalization of female characters. In Thelma and Louise, there are anumber of men that play reasonably pivotal parts in the drama, but many ofthese characters are depicted very negatively--almost as caricatures of theworst aspects of what is traditionally considered masculinity--and all are veryquickly left behind as the narrative progresses, with the exception of the policeofficer, Hal. Thelma’s husband, Darryl, is an idiotic, verbally abusive salesman44who bullies his wife to the point that she finally decides to leave for the fishingtrip without asking his permission, because she is sure he will not allow her togo. When she tries to call him at four o’clock in the morning, after having beenattacked by Harlan, Darryl is still not home from his “sales” meeting. When shedoes reach him by phone the next day, he yells at her, ordering her to returnhome immediately; and when she tries to explain what’s going on, he stopslistening to her to watch an exciting play of the football game on television.Thelma tells the hitchhiker, J.D., that Darryl prides himself on being infantile,and Louise concurs that Darryl has a lot to be proud of. When the women lockthe state trooper in the trunk of his car, he pleads with them not to kill him, ashe has a wife and children. Thelma tells him: “Be sweet to them, especiallyyour wife. My husband wasn’t sweet to me and look how I turned out.” Darrylis thus shown to be a patriarchal bully, and not a viable alternative for Thelmato return to.Louise’s boyfriend, Jimmy, is far less negatively depicted, although he isshown to be reluctant to make the commitment to Louise that she desires. Partof her plan in going away for the weekend is to make Jimmy wonder where sheis and realize that he misses her. When she calls him and explains that she isin trouble and needs money, he asks if he can bring it to her. But he hesitateswhen she asks him if he loves her, so she suggests that he just wire it to her.Jimmy decides to come in person, however, bringing not only the money Louiserequested, but an engagement ring too. Louise tells him that his fear of losingher is not a good reason to get married, and that while she did want acommitment from him, she does not want it under these circumstances. Jimmyoffers to go with her wherever she is heading, promises to keep her45whereabouts secret, tells her to keep the ring, and wishes her happiness.White Jimmy is thus presented quite sympathetically, his presence in thenarrative does not impinge on the central relationship between Thelma andLouise. When Thelma says she would understand if Louise wanted to make adeal with the police, since she has someone to go back for, L..ouise assures herthat “Jimmy’s not an option.”J.D. provides a casual sexual encounter for Thelma during the night thatLouise and Jimmy end their relationship. His body is fetishized in this scene inthe way that women’s bodies are usually treated in Hollywood films. But whilethe women in male buddy films function as “chicks’ for the boys to pick up andput down” (Wood 228), and J.D. would appear as a correlate to this element inthe female buddy films, it is not J.D. but Thelma who is ultimately “put down” bythe experience. The sex itself is portrayed as consensual and thoroughlyenjoyed by both of them—at one point, Thelma asks J.D. to stop, and when hedoes, she reinitiates--but Thelma’s sexual pleasure (which she did not enjoywith her husband) is followed by the revelation that J.D. did, nonetheless, takeadvantage of her, by stealing all the women’s money. When the detective, Hal,learns about the theft, he blames J.D. for the escalation of the women’s crimes:“There’s two girls out there that had a chance--they had a chance--and nowyou screwed it up for them.” In this way, J.D. provides more than a assuranceof the protagonists’ heterosexuality—the standard function of sexual encounterswith women in the male buddy film—in that he is presented as yet another malecharacter who ignominiously pushes the women toward their eventual tragicfate.46While the rapist, Harlan, is undoubtedly the most horrific male figure inthe film, other despicable (if comic) male characters include the FBI agent,Max, who advises Darryl to speak to Thelma gently and lovingly on the phone,since “women love that shit”; the married tanker truck driver, Earl, who makesrude sexual remarks and gestures to the women each time their paths cross;the state trooper, who Louise describes as “a Nazi”; and the other policeofficers staked out at Darryl’s home, who read Boudoir magazine. Hal isperhaps the most ambivalently presented character in the film. While helaughs at many of the other men’s coarse remarks about women, he seemssensitive to the women’s motives for being on the run, telling Louise that heknows what happened to her in Texas; but this conversation is also responsiblefor the police’s success in pinpointing the women’s position, as he keepsLouise on the phone long enough to trace her call. He squeezes J.D. forinformation about the buddies’ planned destination, “so there’s a small chance Ican actually do them some good.” But even if we believe that he is genuinelyconcerned about the women’s safety, as he seems to be in the last scene ofthe film, his actions do not “actually do them some good,” but instead lead totheir deaths. As an individual, Hal is presented reasonably sympathetically; butas a representative of the law, he is part of the system of male power that hasconstrained and victimized the heroines throughout the film, and which thewomen have (fatally) resolved to elude at any cost. Thelma and Louise thuspresents its male characters in such a way as to deny the possibility ofheterosexual romance providing narrative closure, a function Wood suggests inrelation to the marginalization of women in male buddy films. But it also goeseven further, in terms of ideological “progressiveness,” by subtly suggesting47that the men are collectively responsible for the women’s tragic fate, as an(albeit crude) expression of the film’s understanding gender oppression.Fried Green Tomatoes similarly portrays most of the male characters insomewhat villainous or marginal roles. Buddy, Ruth’s first love and ldgie’sbeloved older brother, is an unproblematically “good” male character, but hedies at the outset of the film. Ruth’s husband, Frank, on the other hand, ispresented equally unproblematically as evil: he is a lecher, a wife-beater, a KluKlux Klan member, and a child abductor. Although the local sheriff, Grady,offers Idgie a chance to leave town when she is charged with murder, both heand the out-of-town investigator are depicted in an overall negative manner,due to their racism and their patriarchal censure of Idgie and Ruth. Men whohave been marginalized by institutional authority, however, are shown to be thesupportive friends of the two women: Big George, the black man who is alsocharged with Frank’s murder; and Smokey Lonesome, the towndrunk!vagabond, who helps protect Ruth’s baby. Most surprising is thedepiction of the town’s preacher, who is extremely disapproving of Idgie andRuth’s behaviour throughout the film, but who nonetheless lies to the court (hebrings his own Bible to swear on, which turns out to be a copy of Moby Dick) toprovide Idgie with an alibi for Frank’s murder. There are no “casualencounters” with male characters provided in this story to act as an alibi for thenature of Idgie’s relationship with Ruth, which is far more strongly depicted asromantic love than the female buddy relationships in the other two films. Butwhile the possibility that Ruth and ldgie are also lovers is not actively deniedthrough the sorts of devices that Wood describes in the male buddy film,neither are they overtly confirmed to be lesbians.48Evelyn’s husband, Ed, in the framing narrative, is another unsympatheticcharacter in the film. Evelyn has been attending classes in an attempt toimprove their marriage, but Ed seems oblivious to both her efforts to please himand to her growing dissatisfaction with the relationship. She asks him if theycould go away together to Florida, like they did when they were first married,so that they can spend some time alone together. Ed, missing the point,continues eating his dinner in front of the sports on television, protesting thatthey are alone together right now. He pushes her out of the way when sheblocks his view of the screen. And when Evelyn asks if he would still bewatching TV if she were wearing nothing but cellophane (a joke suggestion ofher friend, Missy, for spicing up a marriage), he says, “No honey, I’d probablybe checking you into a loony bin.” As Evelyn begins to find other interests--inwork, exercise, and especially her relationship with Mrs. Threadgoode--Edcomplains that there is no dinner waiting for him when he comes home. LaterEvelyn tells him how much she cares for Mrs. Threadgoode, and that shewants to bring her to live with them. When Ed objects, she pleads with him,trying to persuade him that he won’t have to do anything to help, as she caneven pay for any new costs, now that she is working. But Ed’s final word onthe matter is, “Evelyn, it’s never going to happen. Forget about it.” In this way,Ed is portrayed not as evil, but as a stereotypically insensitive husband whoacts as an obstacle to the women’s friendship, which is presented as moreimportant than the marriage to Evelyn’s happiness.Leaving Normal, like Thelma and Louise and Fried Green Tomatoes,contains a relatively large number of secondary male characters, compared tothe women’s roles in male buddy films. And while many of these men are, once49again, depicted as crude or violent, or pushed to the fringe of the dramaticaction, Leaving Normal is far less harsh in its characterization of men than theother two female buddy films. Marianne’s most recent husband, Kurt, is aviolent man, who siaps his new wife across the face for having the audacity torearrange some of his possessions. Yet later in the film, he does the “decent”thing by sending Marianne her engagement ring to Alaska, as she requested,and even forwards her mail. Another male character who is less thansympathetic is the man in the bar in Alaska, who recognizes Darly as a formerstripper, and propositions her. She finally agrees to sleep with him for $500,but when she breaks down sobbing about her abandoned daughter, hislasciviousness changes to concern. He gives her $200 ( she hasbargained herself down to nothing, buying information about the falsedaughter, and she has not fulfilled their sexual contract) and he asks herwhether she has someone to go to, or a place to stay.Darly and Marianne also get picked up while hitchhiking by a pair oftruck drivers, Leon and Harry. The older man, Leon, is crude and lustful,offering Darly a mug with a picture of a topless woman on it. But Leon’s truckdriving sexual machismo is comically undercut and made to seem silly ratherthan threatening, when he reveals to his nephew, Harry, that his wife is theonly woman he has ever slept with. Harry is idealized as a painfully sensitiveman, crying as he reads The Grapes of Wrath, and saying grace to a possiblegod before eating at the diner, just in case he does exist. While Darly finds thiscorny, Marianne is enchanted, and Harry remains a love interest for herthroughout the film. He slips his book into her pocket in the diner with adedication to her written inside the cover, and later writes to all the Marianne50Johnsons in Wyoming, hoping his love letter will somehow reach her. Whenshe writes back, he drives hundreds of miles out of his way to bring her abouquet of flowers (D.O.A.), and then immediately leaves again, in order toreturn to his trucking route. While Marianne elects to stay in Alaska rather thanleave with him, the implication is that their relationship will nonethelesscontinue in the future, and heterosexual romance may one day supplant theprimacy of women’s friendship depicted in the film. This type of fairy-taleclosure is actually played out within the film, when Sixty-six, the waitresssearching for her one true love in life, in one evening meets and gets engagedto a Canadian millionaire, and drives off with him in his limousine to “livehappily ever after,” as Darly puts it. While the film’s presentation of this eventand others as fantasy fulfilled could be read ironically as suggesting a skepticalattitude toward such ideals, Leaving Normal, unlike the other two female buddyfilms, seems to depict the women’s friendship as less important and lesspermanent than the ideal of heterosexual romance and marriage, as part of itsgenerally more conservative discourses on femininity, which I shall discuss inmore detail later. The way male characters are portrayed in Leaving Normal isthus decidedly at odds with what Wood considers “progressive” about themarginalization of women in the male buddy film.A FEMALE LOVE STORYThe extent to which men are marginalized in these female buddy films isrelated to their status as female love stories, a third shared characteristic of thefilms. Wood points to the progressiveness of the buddy love story as placing asame-sex relationship at the emotional centre of the film, and thus standing inopposition to the classical Hollywood cinema’s de rigueur closure: marriage as51a happy ending (228). Thelma and Louise explicitly dismisses marriage as anoption for narrative resolution, as both of the women have ruled out thepossibility of returning to their less than adequate previous partners, and J.D. isruled out as a candidate for romance by his treachery, as I discussed above.When Louise’s male boss at the diner learns that she is talking to Thelma onthe phone, he tells Louise to ask Thelma when she will run away with him.Louise retorts that it won’t be this weekend, since Thelma is running away withher. And indeed, the two women do run away together, driving toward a life ofimagined freedom in Mexico, loving and supporting one another during thedifficult times they share en route. The friends display a rapport similar to theone Haskell describes above in relation to Butch Cassidy and the SundanceKid, including “the willingness to die for someone” (187). As their situationunder the law goes from bad to worse, Thelma tells her friend, “Louise, nomatter what happens, I’m glad I came with you.” When the women decide to“not get caught,” to “keep going” even though they are at the edge of the GrandCanyon, they kiss, and then hold hands as they drive to their deaths.Fried Green Tomatoes, even more overtly, presents itself as a love storybetween women, without necessarily implying a lesbian relationship betweenits heroines. The friendship between Ruth and Idgie is a passionate love,beginning in ldgie’s childhood and later being consolidated during the summerthat the women spend together—bee charming and skinny dipping—prior toRuth’s marriage to Frank. Their relationship from this point develops more inaccordance with an initially star-crossed, then fulfilled, romance. ldgie takesRuth’s marriage as a betrayal of their relationship, and swears she will not seeher again. But Mrs. Threadgoode’s narration tells us that “curiosity got the52better of her,” and Idgie drives to Georgia to see Ruth, discovering when shedoes that Frank has been beating her. Idgie wants to confront Frank, but Ruthtells her that if she really cares about her, she will leave without doinganything, and ldgie complies. Once back in Whistle Stop, ldgie continues torefuse to dance with or to marry her most persistent suitor, Grady.After Ruth’s mother dies, Ruth writes to Idgie, enclosing a passage fromthe Book of Ruth: “And Ruth said, ‘Whither thou goest, I will go. Whither thoulodgest, I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people.” Idgie comes to rescueRuth, and when Frank hits Ruth, ldgie attacks him violently, threatening to killhim if he ever touches Ruth again. As they leave, Ruth discards her weddingring, and Idgie cries out in joy, “Towanda, the amazing Amazon woman.” Ruthwas pregnant at the time of her rescue, and she and ldgie raise her son, BuddyJr. (named after Idgie’s dead brother), together. Ruth suggests at one pointthat perhaps she and the baby should leave, so that they won’t stand in theway of ldgie “settling down,” but Idgie replies, “I am as settled as I’ll ever hopeto be.” And when Ruth is asked by the prosecutor at the murder trial why sheleft Frank and went away with Idgie, she does not mention her husband’sabuse, but instead answers, “Because she’s the best friend I’ve ever had and Ilove her.” In this way, the relationship between these two women is presentedas mutually desired, permanent love. On her deathbed, Ruth tells ldgie thatshe should settle down, if she can find someone who can beat her at poker,thus indicating her wish (as a dying spouse might) that Idgie try to find loveagain.Evelyn responds to the romance of the story of ldgie and Ruth, andgradually develops a deep affection for Mrs. Threadgoode. In times of53emotional crisis throughout the film, the older woman has provided her with thecompanionship, understanding and loving attention that her husband has not.And this relationship between the two women eventually comes to displaceEvelyn’s relationship with her husband as the emotional core of her life and ofthe film’s embedding narrative. When Evelyn mistakenly believes that Mrs.Threadgoode has died, she sobs to the nurse, who is removing her things fromthe room, “She may be just another patient to you, but she was my friend and Iloved her.” In an effort to persuade Mrs. Threadgoode to come and live withher, Evelyn tells her that she is the reason that she gets up every morning.Mrs. Threadgoode, in turn, tells Evelyn that she has reminded her about whatthe most important thing in life is: “Friends, best friends.” This last scene inthe film takes place in the deserted town of Whistle Stop, where Evelynnotices a fresh jar of honey on Ruth’s grave, with a note reading, “I’ll alwayslove you -- The bee charmer.” This scene suggests that Mrs. Threadgoode isIdgie, and that she has indeed found a new friend to love and live with, as shehad loved Ruth.In contrast to Thelma and Louise and Fried Green Tomatoes, LeavingNormal does not resolve itself as decidedly as a love story between women.Certainly, the film focuses on the story of the two women’s travels and troubles,and the friendship they develop; and to this extent, the ‘buddy’ structure of thefilm is unquestionable. But the emotional core of the film really has less to dowith the development of that relationship as an end unto itself, and more to dowith the promise of healing and redemption for the two misguided heroines.This redemption is represented in the building of the symbolic home on thebarren foundation of the property Darly has inherited, in order to prove that54they are ready to commit to the stable values (of blood family bonds, of a long-term marriage) that each has lacked in the past, before they can be consideredemotionally qualified to move on to the real relationships that they have beensecretly craving throughout the film. For Marianne, this is accomplishedthrough the promise of ideal marriage, in the person of the perfectly sweet truckdriver, Harry, as I mentioned earlier. And for Darly, this is accomplished bycoming to terms with her guilt for having abandoned her daughter as an infant,and by taking the first steps to try to contact her, instead of running away fromher pain, as she did in the past. Marianne does provide her with the emotionalsupport she needs to effect this change, but Darly’s heart clearly belongs firstand foremost to the lost daughter, not Marianne. In this regard, it is interestingto consider how closely Darly’s narrative trajectory corresponds to that of thetraditional woman’s film, as outlined by Anca Vlasopolos, rather than to that ofa buddy film:The principal feature of the woman’s film is that it focuses on afemale or on a number of female heroes. ... The drama reveals amythic dimension, which is the source of its power and tenacity asa genre, and which provides a filmic and worldly parallel to a kindof Paradise Lost and Regained, with women squarely at thecenter. [...T]he myth of temptation, fall, suffering, and redemptionhas immense resonances for members of a predominantlyChristian culture. Eve transgresses by intruding into masculineterritory, either by her behavior--polyandrous, sexuallyaggressive, sexually adventurous--or by her ambition for a career,for power, or for worldly goods that can be used to manipulatemen rather than to nest. Eve falls and begins her suffering. Hertravail appears as inner turmoil and/or.. .societal censure. Eve isredeemed from the brink of catastrophe (often represented asdivorce or single-woman loneliness) by reintegration into society,which follows her refeminization. (Vlasopolos 116)55Darly (“Eve”) has come to Alaska (after many years of “inner turmoil”)hoping to find her daughter there (“Paradise Losi’), thinking that the girl’sfather, Joe (from whom she inherited the property), may have claimed the childand raised her there after Darly left the town (Eden) years ago (the act whichconstitutes her original “fall” or “transgression”). But when she gleans from theunfinished state of the property that Joe left town at the same time she did, andis later humiliated by the judgmental hospital nurse (representing “societalcensure”) from whom she seeks information about tracing her daughter’srecords, she wants to leave again (a repetition of her original refusal to “nest”).But Marianne spends their “leaving money” on flowers, a porch swing, and thecorner desk that Darly had wanted Joe to build for her (symbols of the “nest”).Furious, Darly plans to leave without Marianne (a second “transgression”), andoffers herself to the man who propositioned her earlier, to get some “leavingmoney” (approaching “the brink of catastrophe”). And if the man had notmentioned seeing Joe with his daughter a few years ago, Darly would havekept moving on (continued “suffering,” or even become irredeemable), in spiteof Marianne’s warning that, “Just because you’re leaving doesn’t mean you’renot in the same goddam place.” Believing the daughter he mentions to be herlong lost daughter (she is actually a child from Joe’s second marriage), Darlybegs her client for scraps of information about her, giving him back larger andlarger sums of her fee in exchange (“redeemed from the brink of catastrophe”).Discovering her mistake when the man says the daughter was only about fiveyears old, Darly breaks down, sobbing, in maternal anguish (“refeminization”).And when the man asks her if she has a home to go to, it is then that sherealizes, with the suddenness of a religious epiphany, that indeed she does56(“reintegration). A commitment to staying with the child-like Marianne and theInuit boys (on the unfinished site of what was meant to be her home with Joeand their child) while she waits and hopes to hear from her biological daughter,thus becomes Darly’s rite of passage toward being redeemed as a mother(“Paradise Regained’). At the end of the film, Darly and the other members ofthe surrogate family hold hands around the table, and she prays to the possiblegod, “Dear... whoever, please bless this home.. .family, whatever the hell it is...,,It is thus Darly’s thwarted biological imperative of maternal love, rather than thefilm’s buddy structure, that ultimately defines Leaving Normal as a (ratheressentialist) female love story.THE (EMOTIONAL) JOURNEYLike the same-sex love story, the journey motif that informs the malebuddy films of the I 960s and I 970s is also reworked in the three female buddyfilms. In the original buddy films, the journey either had no clear goal, or itsprofessed goal proved illusory (Wood 228). In Thelma and Louise, there is adepicted journey with first one, then a new, ideological and geographical goal,neither of which is realized. But another type of journey emerges as a subtextof the film as the narrative progresses. Thelma and Louise set out for aweekend fishing trip, a traditional (male) ritual of same-sex bonding, freedomfrom domestic routine, and from the opposite sex. As the women concede thatthey don’t even know how to fish, this journey can be understood as reflectingthe women’s desire to temporarily appropriate the signifiers of masculinefreedom and power--the classic American roadster, the fishing stuff, andDarryl’s gun—for a fun-filled weekend of make-believe feminine freedom. Butthese icons of male privilege do not accord Thelma and Louise the actual57freedom of action they represent, because, as we are painfully reminded atevery turn of the narrative, they are nonetheless female, and therefore,vulnerable. This journey goes sour almost immediately, when they shoot therapist and suddenly find themselves fugitives from the Law (of the Father).After a period of panic and aimless driving, the women change thegeographical goal of their journey to Mexico, and the ideological goal of theirjourney to a permanent freedom, outside of the patriarchal rules of the societythat confines them. But Mexico, a symbol of freedom rather than actuallyholding out a better, safer life for the women, cannot be reached from the point(geographical and emotional) the women find themselves at without crossingthrough Texas, where, we are led to assume, Louise was raped in the past.Louise explains to Thelma, “If you shoot a guy in the head with his pants down,Texas is not the place you want to get caught.u In the end, their desperatejourney to Mexico is blocked by a final obstacle, the Grand Canyon, whichironically also provides them with the ultimate escape (and perhaps the onlyreal escape possible, according to the film’s fatalism) from repressivepatriarchal power.But this negative trajectory of the doomed journey does not actuallyreflect the lively, empowering tone of the film, which is created, in part, by thewomen’s emotional journey from dissatisfaction with their lives (Louise says,“you get what you settle for”) and relationships with men, to discovering a newhappiness and love in each other. And accompanying this emotional journey isan uplifting movement toward a realization of oppression by gender, that is,toward feminist awareness. Many critics have pointed out certain aspects of aselect few films of the new women’s cinema (usually Alice Doesn’t Live Here58Anymore or An Unmarried Woman, rather than the three films about afriendship between two women, which I mentioned in Chapter 1) that indicatetheir heroine’s personal growth toward a greater degree of self-awareness(Geraghty 140; Kolker 137; Kuhn 125; Mellen 541). Thelma and Louise, on theother hand, are constructed within a filmic discourse that charts their journeynot just in terms of their growth as individuals, or as friends, but moreimportantly, as women. In discussing independent feminist films, CharlotteBrunsdon terms this type of journey an “odyssey of consciousness,” insofar asit depicts a raising of consciousness within a moral universe that is defined inrelation to “explicit political affiliations” (61):Burning an Illusion and A Question of Silence, have the classic‘odyssey of consciousness’ structure that has frequently beenpopular in ‘tendency’ fiction. In cinema, the classic examples arefilms like The Mother(V.I. Pudovkin, USSR, 1926), where theinitially apolitical and symbolically nameless (i.e. typical) mothergradually takes on the politics of her revolutionary son throughconfrontation on his behalf with the repressive Tsarist police andState apparatus. At the end of the film the mother dies, heroicallyand defiantly holding the red flag in a demonstration. The journeyfrom false to true consciousness is the motivating narrative driveof this type of fiction and the audience is intended to make thisjourney with the central protagonist. As Annette Kuhn hasusefully pointed out, the heroine of this kind of odyssey can eitherbe shown to be typical, and thus representative, as in (to use herexamples) Salt of the Earth (H. Biberman, USA, 1953), or remaina unique individual, as in Norma Rae (Martin Ritt, USA, 1979).However, in both cases the tendency is towards the use of realistconventions to render the film form transparent and facilitateidentification by the viewers. (Brunsdon 56-57)Brunsdon suggests that A Question of Silence, for example, depicts ajourney “from non-feminist heterosexuality to woman-identification” and “[alt aschematic level.. .offers a utopian bonding of its female characters.. .against theuncomprehending state apparatus of a male world” (57), a description that59could equally apply to Thelma and Louise. What is perhaps in question is thelevel of explicitness of the film’s discourses in presenting this “odyssey ofconsciousness” in relation to feminism, as the political affiliation which definesthe fiction’s moral universe. Thelma develops a new awareness of the injusticeof the legal system’s--and the patriarchal culture-at-large’s--attitude towardrape, for example, and concludes, “The law is some tricky shit, isn’t it.” And theaudience is invited to share this perspective by the collusion of many of thefilm’s discourses—the negative characterization of individual men’s attitudetoward and treatment of women; the extreme insensitivity and excessivereaction of the police force in general; and the oblique evidence of Louise’semotionally crippling experience in Texas--in presenting “the uncomprehendingstate apparatus of a male world” (57), as Brunsdon puts it. Their attack on thesexist tanker truck driver also adds to the coherence of the film’s feministdefinition of the moral universe, for this is the only logical (although unstated)motivation for the women’s actions, and the only way in which the viewer canbe invited to enjoy the results as the driver’s well-deserved punishment. Theextremity of this feminist odyssey of consciousness is hinted at several timesduring the film, and with greater frequency as the end of their journeyapproaches. Thelma tells Louise that she feels wide awake, that everythinglooks different to her now, and that she finally feels like she has something tolook forward to, but that: “Something’s, like, crossed over in me, and I can’t goback. I mean, I just couldn’t live.” The buddies are told by the police that theywill have to decide whether they want to come in dead or alive, and ultimatelyfaced with that choice, they choose death rather than allowing themselves to60be taken back into a society where they could no longer live, now that theirconsciousness has been raised.Although not organized around a geographical journey in the way thatThelma and Louise is, Fried Green Tomatoes also depicts an odyssey ofconsciousness moving from “non-feminist heterosexuality to woman-identification” (Brunsdon 57). In the embedding narrative about therelationship between Evelyn and Mrs. Threadgoode, Evelyn moves fromfocusing all her attention and energies on her complacent husband toward astrong identification with the transgressive behaviour of Ruth and Idgie and afeeling of love for Mrs. Threadgoode that supercedes the emotional importanceof her marriage. This emotional journey allows her to make drastic changes inher own behaviour in the world, but the question remains as to whether or notthese changes are constructed by the film’s textual strategies as belonging to acoherent moral universe defined by the politics of feminism. At the outset ofthe film, Evelyn is shown to be a yielding, Southern woman with a weightproblem and little self-esteem. She takes the abuse heaped upon her by herhusband’s aunt in the nursing home, and reacts in helpless disbelief when ayoung man at the grocery store is extremely rude to her, for example. She isattending group classes with her friend, Missy, hoping that they will improveher marriage, although Missy suggests that an assertiveness training coursefor Southern women would be more useful. The film mocks these classes asembodying a ridiculous kind of female bonding, a “false consciousness” fromwhich Evelyn must free herself. At one session, which is played for comedy,the group leader announces to Evelyn’s stunned horror, that: “During thesenext few weeks we will be learning to reclaim our own power as women.61Hallelujah! And tonight we’re going to begin to explore our own femaleness byexamining the source of our strength and our separateness, our vaginas. So, ifyou all will slip out of your panties and straddle your mirrors....”A change begins to take place in Evelyn’s behaviour as her friendshipwith Mrs. Threadgoode develops and as she hears more about the romanticexploits of Ruth and Idgie. From the flashback depiction of Idgie’s rescue ofRuth and her threat to kill Frank, Avnet dissolves to a tabloid newspaper withthe headline, ‘Wife kills husband and sells his body parts to aliens,” whichEvelyn is musing over in the checkout line. She tells Missy, who is shoppingwith her, that she will not be going to the group session that night. Evelyn latervisits Mrs. Threadgoode, and confides to her that she feels “useless” and“powerless,” and that she just can’t seem to stop eating. Mrs. Threadgoodeattributes these emotional problems to menopause, and suggests that she gethormones, and that she try to find a job, perhaps selling cosmetics. And overthe course of the rest of the film, these problems do seem to go away. Sheloses weight, deals with her husband more assertively, and gets a job sellingMary Kaye products. The next time someone is rude to her at the supermarket--two young girls quickly pull into the parking spot she has been waiting for, andthen laugh at her protests, saying “Face it lady, we’re younger and faster”—Evelyn does not react powerlessly, but instead uses her car to repeatedly ramthe girls’ car, laughing and shouting, “Towanda,” in emulation of Idgie. Inrecounting her exploits to Mrs. Threadgoode, she delivers the followingspeech:I never get mad, Miss Threadgoode, never. The way I was raisedit was bad manners. Well, I got mad and it felt terrific! I felt Icould beat the shit out of all those punks—excuse my language—beat ‘em to a pulp, beat ‘em ‘til they beg for mercy. Towanda, the62avenger! And after I wipe out all the punks of this world, I’ll takeon the wife-beaters of this world, like Frank Bennett, and machinegun their genitals. Towanda will go on the rampage. I’ll put tinylittle bombs in Penthouse and Playboy so they’ll explode whenyou open them. And I’ll ban all fashion models who weigh lessthan 130 pounds. And I’ll give half the military budget to peopleover sixty-five, and declare wrinkles sexually desirable.Towanda, righter of wrongs, queen beyond compare!Mrs. Threadgoode responds to this speech by asking, “How many of thosehormones are you taking, honey?”In this way, Evelyn’s odyssey of consciousness is not tied to a distinctlyfeminist moral universe created by the film’s fiction, but rather involves aconfused mixture of feelings of antagonism against “wrongs” as diverse asyouth (“punks”), wife-beaters, social demands that women be thin, excessivemilitary spending, and the cultural equation of sexual attractiveness with youth.While feminism might have something important to say about all these issues,no such discourse is articulated in this film. The very confusion of these ideasare also ascribed to biological femininity--the hormones--as are all of Evelyn’sproblems and failures. Rather than necessitating an understanding of heractions from a feminist standpoint, which might contextualize her feelings ofpowerlessness as stemming from women’s culturally conditionedpowerlessness under patriarchy, for example, many of the film’s discoursesinstead encourage us to see Evelyn’s odyssey of consciousness as that of ashy or sexually repressed individual’s growth toward personal self-confidence;or as the mid-life-crisis/menopausal epiphany of a bored housewife in anunhappy marriage. If there is any suggestion of a feminist discourse--anexplicit gender consciousness-- in FrIed Green Tomatoes, it is to be foundstructurally in Evelyn’s identification with the transgressive behaviour of Idgieand Ruth, and the fact that this identification is empowering for her. Acting as63the diegetic audience of the story that Mrs. Threadgoode recounts, Evelynstands in for the film spectator who is also enjoying the adventures of Ruth andIdgie, and suggests the possibility of drawing empowering meanings from theirstory that are perhaps relevant to the cinema spectators’ lives. Fried GreenTomatoes thus uses the diegetically inscribed odyssey of consciousness ofEvelyn as an internal commentary and testament, pointing to the powerfulimpact of fictions of sisterhood and woman-identification, despite its lack of anexplicit feminist affiliation.Leaving Normal, like Thelma and Louise, is organized around a symbolicjourney, with no expressly stated goal, except that which is articulated in thetitle. “Normal” is the name of the town that Marianne leaves at the beginning ofthe film, when she decides to leave Kurt. And “normal” has an ideologicalmeaning, as well as a geographical one, as Robin Wood explains in relation tothe male buddy films: leaving “normal” is understood as “progressive” insofaras the buddies avoid submitting to patriarchally defined concepts, such ashome, marriage and family. But Leaving Normal ultimately returns to thenormality it claims to leave, and in an extremely idealized way. As I havealready described the ideological conservativeness of Marianne and Darly’semotional journey toward redemption (romantic or maternal) in my discussionof the female love story, I shall now turn my attention to how the ostensible“goalessness” of the physical journey reinforces these traditional discoursessurrounding femininity. The film creates an interesting alibi for all of itsconservative elements by suggesting that fate, which the characters arepowerless to resist, is steering their course through life. At the beginning of thefilm, Marianne and her sister, Emily, overhear their parents fighting, as they are64packed up into a van for yet another move. Marianne comforts Emily byassuring her that everything will work out somehow, as the van magically takesoff flying into the starry night sky. This sort of mystic, fantasy-optimism isvisually reinforced throughout the film. For example, when Marianne says sheis afraid she is making another wrong choice by leaving Emily’s house, Darlydecides that they will no longer make any decisions themselves. As they taketheir vow to relinquish their destiny from their own control (since they deemthemselves unqualified to make decisions of any importance), a rainbowappears in the sky beyond them, sealing the covenant, and promising divineintervention into their hopelessly misguided lives. They draw straws (actually,cigarettes) to decide between options that present themselves, and allow thespot where bird droppings hit the map, or the direction a frog leaps, to decidethe route they will take. Thus, while the women’s travels seem aimless, theviewer is cinematically reassured that there really is a higher purpose at work,which in spite of the problems that beset the buddies on the way, still managesto deliver them to their destiny in the Alaskan town. The women cross manyborders, and leave behind many versions of normal, but even the (somewhat)“alternative” family and home they create in Alaska is seen as provisional, as asurrogate outlet for Darly’s frustrated maternal instinct, and as a temporary stopfor Marianne before fate decides she will settle down with Harry as her fourthhusband, and like Sixty-six and her millionaire beau, live happily ever after.She does not choose to stay in Alaska, but, as she explains to Darly, “it choseme.” Any type of emotional growth or increased self-awareness that theaudience could see in the alternative family that the women find, or in the waysthey make peace with their past, is severely undercut by the film’s continual65assertion that the women maintain no agency over their lives, and have thusnot undergone an odyssey of consciousness related to an explicit politicalaffiliation (even a reactionary one). And even the very engaging friendshipbetween the women is somewhat diminished by this fatalism, as theirrelationship is dependent on having been thrust together by chance. In thisway, both the physical and symbolic journeys of Leaving Normal collude withthe text’s other conservative discourses on femininity and female friendship.ABSENCE OF HOMEAll three of the female buddy films in question in some way comment onthe notion of home as a state of mind, or as an ideological construct of security.In Thelma and Louise, the heroines leave home as a temporary respite from itsconstraints, but are ultimately disallowed from returning, not only by their statusas fugitives, but also by the “odyssey of consciousness” structure of theirjourney, in which “home” is exposed as patriarchal construct, and thusinvalidated as a place they would want to return to. Similarly, the justicesystem as an ideological construct of security, is dismantled in relation to aspecifically feminist consciousness. As in the male buddy films that Wooddiscusses, home, in Thelma and Louise, is ultimately America itself. Theydecide that in order to escape the oppressiveness of the ideology that “home”represents for women, they must flee the country to Mexico. In an ironiccommentary on women’s subjugation under the “security” of being confined tothe home, Thelma and Louise presents the buddies desperate flight from thelaw as an opportunity for freedom, travel and self-expression. Thelma says oftheir fugitive existence, “At least now I’m having some fun.” And as they arebeing chased by the swarms of police cars near the end of the film, Louise66asks, “So how d’you like the vacation so far?” In this way, the women’sdecision not to return “home” is presented as informed by their recognition ofthe way it has constrained them in the past.In Fried Green Tomatoes the ideological concept of home is reworkedseveral times, in both levels of the narrative. First, Idgie rejects her childhoodhome and its repressive values, deciding instead to continue her transgressivelifestyle outside it. Later, she helps Ruth reject her husband’s abusive home,and the two women reconstruct a home for themselves, with a number of blackemployees of the cafe becoming their extended family. This alternative homestands in direct opposition to the narrowly delineated concepts of home that theracist and sexist historical milieu demands. In the modern day story of Mrs.Threadgoode’s friendship with Evelyn, the “normal” concepts of home are alsoreinvented. Mrs. Threadgoode moves from her home in Whistle Stop to staywith her ailing friend in the nursing home, and when her friend dies, tries tomove back home, only to discover that her house has been destroyed. But theconcept of home, as representing love and security--and for Mrs. Threadgoode,it also means having someone to take care of--endures as Evelyn nowconsiders her as family. Ed’s idea of family, however, is limited to bloodrelatives, and he vehemently objects to Evelyn bringing the old woman home.Evelyn has torn down and rebuilt her “home” as part of her emotional journey:physically, in first tearing down and then putting back the walls of her grownson’s room, which she prepares for Mrs. Threadgoode; and ideologically, asshe now feels she can defy her husband’s wishes in regard to her friend, asthis friendship has become the emotional focus of her life and now defines herconcept of “home” in a decidedly anti-patriarchal way. In this way, the67redefinition of home in this film suggests a shift in Evelyn’s social identity fromdutiful wife, to “liberated” and loving female friend. It is nonetheless importantto note that while the film presents this as a radical departure from Evelyn’spast deference to her husband’s wishes, a middle-aged woman becoming thecaretaker of a very elderly woman does not represent a terribly unusual turn ofevents in real life, and is certainly not incompatible with patriarchal definitionsof women’s role in society.Leaving Norma! also suggests an effort to redefine the concept of home.While America as home, as ideological security, is not undermined to the fullextent that it is in Thelma and Louise, the buddies do find themselves fleeingtheir past lives of instability and pain, ultimately settling in Alaska, a kinder,marginal America. But the title of the film suggests a more decisive break withdominant ideology than that which is actually accomplished by the women’s (atleast temporary) abandonment of “normal.” Married life, with a house, kidsand patriarchal law, is replaced by two female friends living in the middle ofnowhere in a trailerlrebuilt cabin with a couple of Inuit boys whose father is injail. In this case then, a group of misfits and outcasts come together to create aprovisional matrix of ideological security, in order to get by while waiting for thereal thing. Leaving Normal does not stand in opposition to the ideology of“home” in the same way the male buddy films do, but instead seeks to reidealize the emotional stability of “home” by redefining it outside of its mostoppressive, patriarchal dimensions.DEATH AS RESOLUTIONRobin Wood suggests that the death of one or both of the buddies isnecessary in order to resolve the narrative without leaving open the possibility68of consummating the same-sex love story that the male buddy films tell. InLeaving Normal, it is unnecessary for anyone to die, as the relationshipbetween the women has not been constructed in a way that is threatening topatriarchal values, as mentioned above. And although Ruth dies within thestory of Fried Green Tomatoes, her death does not occur to deny a potentialconsummation of the buddy pair’s relationship, as she and Idgie have alreadybeen living together for years at the time when she dies. That their relationshipwas quite possibly more than platonic love is never disavowed. And Ruth’sdeath, too, is contained within the framing structure of Mrs. Threadgoode’sgrowing friendship with Evelyn, which gradually takes over the film’s overallnarrative focus. Only Thelma and Louise resolves its central narrativetrajectory in the tragic death of the buddies, but unlike the male buddy films,this death is not necessarily demanded to disallow the possibility of the same-sex relationship being consummated sexually, but rather to complete thefeminist odyssey of consciousness of their journey together. The death ofThelma and Louise elevates their status to that of martyred heroines, allowingthem the final evasion of patriarchal authority, without them having to be shownactually dying: they drive over the cliff in slow motion, a Polaroid snapshot ofthem flutters out of the back seat, and the image of the car in mid-flight isfrozen to a still and fades out to white, in a glorifying swell of music. And thenthe film presents us with clips of the buddies’ adventures, from happy momentsearlier in the film, denying the finality of their deaths.I have proposed readings of Fried Green Tomatoes and Leaving Normalwhich suggest a more conservative presentation of female buddies than that ofThelma and Louise, which may go some way toward explaining why the69heroines of this latter film are killed, whereas the female friends of the othertwo films are allowed to continue their relationship. All three films representmodified versions of the Wood model of buddy films’ progressiveness, pointingto the potential to appropriate these elements for a feminist agenda. Mycomparative reading of the films paints their relative levels of “success” in thisventure along a continuum of ideological positions, in order to demonstratetheir diversity. But each film would be better understood as a mixture of bothprogressive and conservative impulses, which are organized—not only bytextual strategies, but also by critical reading strategies--in a hierarchy of valueto create (or deconstruct) a coherent ideological “meaning.” My own criticalperspective (as well as the framework of Wood’s model) shapes whichelements I have privileged in fixing slippery notions such as textualprogressiveness.Although all three female buddy films offer “positive” images of femalefriendship (insofar as all of the friendships are seen as a “good” thing for thewomen involved), I have tried to demonstrate the varying degrees to which thistranslates (or more often, fails to translate) into a coherently progressive,feminist position. In the following chapter, I shall turn my attention to how an“anti-buddy” film (one that a liberal feminist critique might characterize as a“negative” portrayal of female friendship) struggles with this same ideologicalambivalence, rather than simply constituting a reactionary “backlash.”70CHAPTER 4Backlash?: Fatal Female Friendship and Other Mor(t)ality TalesIn terms of generic affiliation, Single White Female (Barbet Schroeder,1992) primarily belongs to a cycle of contemporary thrillers that problematizethe stability of heterosexual romance, family, and home. But it also recalls thenew women’s cinema, by focusing on the relationship between two womenfriends (who are also roommates), one of whom wants to leave the relationshipto be married. This is the basic situation in Claudia WeiIPs Girlfriends, forexample. And Single White Female also suggests an even earlier antecedentin the “competition” woman’s films mentioned in the first chapter. Its plot isparticularly reminiscent of The Dark Mirror, in which an evil woman triesunsuccessfully to steal the identity and boyfriend of her identical twinsister/roommate, by driving her mad; A Stolen Life, in which the evil twin doesmarry her sisters boyfriend, but then disappears in a boating accident, allowingthe good twin to impersonate her sister and thus become the wife of the manshe loves; and What’s the Matter with Helen? (Curtis I-Iarrington, 1971), acampy vehicle for Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters in which the insaneHelen ultimately kills her best friend/roommate because she is planning toleave their relationship to marry her millionaire boyfriend. This pathologicalrelationship between twins, sisters or roommates, as rooted in the fear-traditionally constructed as a feminine fear--of being single (both in the senseof one’s marital status and the state of being alone, and therefore vulnerable),becomes the central anxiety expressed in Single White Female. This sense ofanxiety is centred around the film’s high degree of ideological ambivalence71toward marriage, romance, career, and friendship between women, which isnever textually resolved into a coherent organization of its many competingdiscourses on femininity.A struggling, young professional woman, Allison Jones (Alli), has cometo New York in order to pursue her career in computer software design for thefashion industry, and becomes engaged to Sam Rawson. At the beginning ofthe film, we see the couple lying in bed, discussing how many children theyplan to have. When Sam tells Alli that 1.2 is the statistical norm, she repliesthat in that case, she wants 2.2 children. These more than “ideal” plans fortheir traditional nuclear family are immediately undermined, however, when welearn that Sam is divorced, and therefore a less than perfect embodiment of theconcept, “til death do us part.” In planning the size of their wedding, Alli alsoarticulates her rather heavy reliance on Sam: since she knows so few peoplein New York, Sam is virtually (with the exception of Graham, her homosexualconfidant upstairs) the only friend she has, and, she declares, the only friendshe needs. But as the couple sleep, Sam’s ex-wife calls the apartment, andover the amplification of the answering machine, reveals that Sam has beenunfaithful to Alli, having slept with his ex-wife that afternoon. Alli breaks off theengagement and kicks Sam out of her apartment, but then immediately goesupstairs to spend the night with Graham, explaining, “I can’t be alone tonight.”But it becomes more and more apparent that Alli is desperately afraid ofbeing alone any time. Discussing her situation with Graham, Alli says she can’tbear doing “pathetic” things, like cooking for one. She muses that perhaps sheshould give up her career and move back home, but Graham tells her(prophetically enough, given the outcome of Alli’s decision to get a roommate),72“There are worse things than being on your own, you know.” Alli agrees withhim—that no guy is worth giving up her career in New York--and decides thatshe can make it on her own, but with a roommate. Sensing the emotionalcapitulation to the fear of being alone that this decision represents, Grahamsuggests that she could simply call Sam. But Alli replies, “Not if I have aroommate.” Alli needs a roommate not only to replace Sam in her life, but alsoto prevent her from taking him back through her own emotional weakness.Hedra is similarly desperate to escape her “singleness,” and answersAlli’s ad in the newspaper for a roommate. Hedra wants a guarantee thatthings are permanently over between Sam and Alli, explaining her feelings interms more appropriate to the beginning of a love affair than a new tenancy, “Idon’t want to move in, and catch you on the rebound, and then have thingschange.” But we later learn that Hedra’s need for companionship ispathologically rooted in her unresolved feelings about her twin sister’s death.When Alli asks about her family, Hedra tells her that she is an only child butwas supposed to be a twin, and that her sister was still-born: “I grew up feelinga part of me was missing.” Hedra’s twin actually drowned when they wereeight years old. In the scene in which Alli tries Hedra’s perfume and a pair ofher earrings, Hedra surprises her in the act, appearing in the dressing tablemirror over Alli’s shoulder. Hedra gives Alli the earrings, and thus begins theprocess of persuading Alli to complete the part of her that is missing. Hedraadmires Alli’s appearance and style, and begins to emulate her, buyingidentical articles of clothing, and eventually even dyeing and cutting her hair toappear like Alli’s mirror image, in an attempt to reproduce the relationship shehad with her dead twin sister. She buys a puppy and names it Buddy, because73that was the name of her childhood dog. Initially angry about the dog, Allicapitulates once again, desperately needing a “buddy” to fill the gap of herloneliness. Lying on the bed, Alli, Buddy and Hedra pose for a Polaroid “familyportrait,” as Hedra calls it, which duplicates the old black and white photo ofHedra, her sister and the original Buddy, which she keeps in her shoebox ofsecret stuff. Also in the shoebox is a letter from Sam to Alli, which Hedra hasstolen to prevent the couple’s reconciliation. And as persistently as Alli checksher answering machine for messages from Sam, Hedra erases them.Ultimately, however, the couple meet in person and reconcile, much toHedra’s dismay. In one instance, Schroeder cuts between scenes of Hedra’ssolitude at the apartment, and Alli and Sam making love at his hotel. Hedrakicks the puppy violently across the room, as she watches Jimmy Stewart ontelevision telling a woman that he loves her, and asking, “Would you like it togo on for always?” The woman asks if anything goes on for always, to whichJimmy replies, “Well, one likes to think that some things do.” From this ironiccommentary on the disintegration and ending of Hedra’s relationship with Alli,as with her sister before, Schroeder cuts back to the hotel room where Alli andSam are making love, and then cuts to a close-up of the engagement ring Alliwears, a symbol of the permanence of her relationship with him, as well as herstatus as no longer “single.” When Alli comes back to the apartment arounddawn and tells Hedra about her engagement to Sam, Hedra compares herselfto Alli in the mirror, saying, “I’m sure you’ll be very, very happy, and I’ll bealone.”Hedra’s characterization, while reasonably sympathetic at this point,becomes increasingly negative as the film progresses, culminating in her killing74two people (Sam and Mitchell, Alli’s rapist boss) and trying to kill two others(Graham and Alli). Hedra repeatedly warns AIII that Sam will cheat on heragain, and desperate to convince her, sets out to prove it by flirting with Sam,and making passes at him. And not only does she thus represent a sexualthreat to the couple in pursuing Sam, as in the traditional “competition”woman’s film, but she is also shown to be a sexual threat to Alli. One night Allihears strange squeaking sounds, and discovers Hedra moaning and thrusting,face down against the bed. Hedra frequently kisses Alli casually, andundresses in front of her several times through the course of the film, as Allilooks away, embarrassed. And when Alli follows Hedra to the undergroundclub, there seems to be a live (offscreen) sadomasochistic spectacle of somekind going on. A woman approaches Alli, asks her if she wants to play, andthen continues to menacingly follow her through the club, and a man in a cagereaches out and touches her face as she passes, thus linking Hedra’s sexualitywith a “perversity” that violates Alli’s personal space and sense of safety. Andwhen Alli sees Hedra’s bloody clothing soaking in the sink (the result of herbludgeoning Graham with a crowbar), Hedra complains of her period startingand ruining her outfit, thus linking the monstrous spectacle of her murderousviolence with her (female) sexuality.Thwarted in her attempts to undermine Sam in Alli’s eyes, and havingbeen exposed as being deeply, mentally disturbed, Hedra decides toimpersonate Alli to prove Sam’s infidelity. She warns Alli that Sam will cheaton her again, “and when he does don’t come running to me, ‘cause I’ve had itwith you. You’re so fucking weak.” Hedra is vindicated in her opinion of Sam,in that he allows her to perform fellatio on him even after he has realized the75deception. Although Hedra accidentally kills Sam by lashing out at him withher (actually Alli’s) shoe, which spikes him through the eye, what Hedra latertells Alli about her motives is sincere: “Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for you.All the people you’ve hated, I’ve hated.”But Hedra’s opinion of Alli’s weakness becomes less and less true asthe film progresses. Having violently repelled her boss’s sexual assault--anassault which he justifies by referring to her (vulnerable) “single” status, as herlast chance to play before she is an old married lady--Alli is surprised at herown capacity to fight: “But what I did... It was like something inside me takingover. It was scary.” Within her career, too, she has protected herself fromexploitation as an independent business woman, after an “unfriendly split” withher first partnerlroommate, by building a “time-bomb” into her software, whichdestroys the data in the system if she is not paid in full by a certain date. WhenAlli discovers the full extent of Hedra’s lies about her past and the calculatedinterference in her relationship with Sam, she initially goes and confides inGraham (Sam is out of town), but refuses his invitation to spend the night at hisplace and his suggestion to bring in the police: Alli tells him, “She’s myproblem, I’ll handle it.” And ultimately, Alli finds the strength to “handle” Hedraand save herself. Discovering that Hedra has killed Sam with her shoe, shepretends that her nausea is caused by a possible pregnancy, rather thanrevealing her emotional shock and horror. When Hedra takes Alli up toGraham’s apartment at gunpoint, Alli tries to persuade Hedra to leave Grahamout of it. Taped into a chair in his apartment, Alli turns up the volume of thetelevision in hopes of attracting the attention of neighbours. And when Hedradiscovers this attempt to escape and decides to cut Alli’s throat, Alli cleverly76plays on Hedra’s emotional weakness, kissing her tenderly on the lips andwhispering, “Don’t make me leave you, Ellen” (Hedra’s real name). After asecond escape attempt and the brief intervention of Mitchell, the rapist/boss,Hedra again resolves to kill Alli, this time as a forced ‘suicide’. Hedra dictatesthe following suicide note for Alli: “I don’t want to be alone anymore. I don’twant to be anything anymore. I don’t need a reason to kill myself. I need areason not to. And there isn’t one.” Alli objects to the content of the note,saying, “No one I know will believe I wrote that. I was never that scared. Well,not like that.” But Hedra answers, “Of course it’s you. I never met anyone soscared of being alone. I saved you from that, but you don’t care.” Alli explainsthat she is no longer like Hedra’s sister (who, according to Hedra, used her andthen left her behind, alone), but like Hedra herself (the one who was left behindto go on living, surviving without her loved one). And in the final battle in thebuilding’s basement, just after Hedra throws open the wardrobe and slashes ather own image reflected by the mirror inside, Alli swings down from the ceilingbeams and stabs Hedra, her own psychological likeness, in order that she maysurvive. In this way, Alli undergoes an “odyssey of consciousness,” of sorts,moving from weakness (her desperate fear of being alone) to strength(independence). But this journey also demands that she kill her friend, whocan be read as embodying the emotionally weak side of Alli, before she canachieve independence.The final sequence of the film takes place in an empty apartment (theone which Sam and Alli had considered taking to get away from Hedra) whichAlli is apparently moving into. As we watch her hands, in close-up, leaf throughvarious photographs and clippings, replacing them in Hedra’s shoebox--the77picture of the twins and their dog, the Polaroid of Hedra, Alli and Buddy,another photograph of Hedy and Alli--we hear Alli’s voice-over narration:I cried the whole week of Sam’s funeral. Graham says that won’tbring him back. He says I have to start letting go. He’s right.Hedy’s parents said that for years they tried to explain to her thather sister’s death wasn’t her fault. But she never forgave herselffor surviving. So everyday I try to forgive Hedy for Sam. Then Itry to do what she couldn’t--forgive myself. I know what canhappen to someone who doesn’t.Graphically representing these psychological consequences, the camera thenpans from the closed shoebox to a photographic composite of Alli and Hedra’sfaces, almost imperceptibly split down the centre. The “singleness” which Alliwas so desperate to leave behind at the outset of the film threatens to bereplaced with a pathological doubleness, mental illness apparently being theprice of her new-found state of emotional independence.But this reactionary conclusion to the film’s discourses on women’s fearof being single and the undesirability of female strength and emotionalindependence, does not represent the only ideological resolution of the film, asSingle White Female does not, on the other hand, successfully defend thefamily or heterosexual couple--the alternative that is usually presented forwomen to choose instead of independence-- in terms of narrative closure. Asonly the single, white (heterosexual) female and her gay, male neighboursurvive, there is no chance for any even pseudo-familial relationship to besalvaged; yet an alternative sense of community is evoked in the emotionalsupport system Graham provides for Alli in her period of grief, withoutdemanding her emotional dependence. The growing personal strength andindependence we see in the development of Alli’s character can be read assuggesting that Hedra did not rescue Alli from being alone, as she claims, but78from the constant fear of being alone which originally left her crippled anddependent at the beginning of the film. By the end of the film, it would seemthat she can “make it on her own”, that is, without needing a lover or roommate,as suggested by her “letting go” of Sam, and moving into a new, smallerapartment in New York, rather than even contemplating going home, as shehad done after her breakup with Sam. And the uplifting music over the endcredits, “State of Independence,” sung by Chrissie Hynde, supports thistrajectory toward a new-found power of self-determination, in lyrics such as,‘Yes, I do know how I survived.! Yes, I do know why I’m alive....”In the final analysis, however, there are an overwhelming number ofcontradictions within the text that suggest the film’s extreme ambivalence inrelation to feminism. There are many threads within the narrative that wouldindicate Single White Female’s collusion with conservative discourses ofpatriarchal culture: the alignment of lesbianism with criminal deviance; thepitting of two women against each other as two sides of the same weak,dependent, psychotic coin; and the fact that marriage to Sam is seen as anegative choice because of his inability to measure up to the ideal of thetraditional husband!father, rather than because this ideal is in itselfproblematic, for example. But other elements can be seen as working toward amore progressive discourse: the “positive” depiction of Graham as the film’s“voice of reason,” and as the only man who is presented as deserving tosurvive; the critique of idealized fantasies of heterosexual romance; thevalidation of women’s careers, and the final affirmation of the career woman’sability to survive all manner of assaults, outside the confines of marriage.79This openness of Single White Female to various opposing readingssuggest that the film does not simply represent a “backlash”—the term itselfimplies the existence of a coherent political discourse against which it can “lashback”--against the positive depiction of women’s friendship in the female buddyfilms, but rather points to the same sort of ideological ambiguity that Idiscussed in the previous chapter. This ambiguity stems from a lack ofconsolidation, or of a clear hierarchy, of the film’s discourses on femininity andfemale friendship. This lack of ideological coherence, in other words, is aproduct of the lack of a textually preferred meaning: are we being instructed onthe dangers of emotional weakness, as this could lead to an unhealthy (or evenlife-threatening) trust in and reliance on someone unworthy (Sam), or homicidal(Hedra)? Or perhaps we are being taught that too much feminine“independence” is a dangerous thing: in first moving to the big city for acareer, AUi is taken advantage of by both a business partner and then a rapistboss; second, in throwing over her fiancé and living with another woman in hisplace, she destroys her romantic happiness and risks her own life; and third,the film suggests that by finding the strength to defend herself and survive, Allicauses her own (future) mental illness, the same pathological doubleness thatHedra represents. As I have indicated previously, however, the idea of“preferred meaning” is itself somewhat problematic, especially in relation tovarious forms of “political” criticism. The next chapter will take up this issue inmore detail, with reference to female friendship films as popular texts.80CHAPTER 5Reception Theory and Feminist Criticism of Popular TextsIn discussing the discourses on femininity carried within the popularcinema of the I 950s, Brandon French points to a contestational impulserunning beneath the surface of films of this generally conservative time period,in a manner which could equally apply to the films I have discussed in theprevious chapters:These movies.., are a mixture of progressive and reactionaryelements. For transition is a time of conflict and contradiction, aswell as growth and change. When stable patterns break down,both old and new alternatives compete for ascendancy. Thetransitional woman is often torn between her desire for aconventional, secure lifestyle and her longing for anunconventional, adventurous, largely uncharted course of action.Or she may exhibit two contradictory modes of behavior,stemming from confusion about her real nature and her traditionalfemale role. (French xxiii-xxiv)The question presents itself as to what time period within the twentieth centurywas not a period of transition of some kind for western women. Feminism, as awomen’s movement, is commonly understood as coterminous with two distinctwaves of political activism: the Suffragette movement and the Women’sLiberation movement of the I 960s. But French uncovers the conflict andcontradiction of the I 950s by “reading against the grain” of the films sheanalyses, looking for ruptures and silences within the text’s overall coherentprivileging of certain meanings, through a sustained application of a criticaldiscourse (I 970s feminism) at odds with the ideological hegemony of the textand its social milieu. Before one can read against the grain of preferredmeaning, however, one must be able to readily locate that meaning and clearly81establish how it is textually “preferred.” This was a relatively easy task in thedecades of the classical Hollywood cinema, as I indicated in chapter one, butsince the advent of more open, or even “incoherent,” textual strategies inpopular cinema beginning in the late I 960s, it has become increasingly difficultto locate meaning authoritatively.1Molly Haskell points out the ideological ambivalence of the portrayal ofwomen across films of the late I 970s and early I 980s:There was a split; the seventies were turning into the Age ofAmbivalence. Even if Hollywood hadn’t ignored us [women], wewould have been hard-put to find a consensus as to just what wewanted to see on the screen: did we want women to be shown,dismally and realistically, as victims; or progressively, asvanquishers of mighty odds? (Haskell 392).But perhaps even more problematic for today’s critical endeavour than a lackof cultural consensus about the ideal way in which women should be depicted,is the cultivated ambivalence within individual film texts, regarding which oftheir diverse discourses on femininity is being put forward as a privilegedmeaning. Robin Wood coins the term “incoherent text” in an essay on threefilms of this period (Taxi Driver [Martin Scorsese, 1976], Cruising [WilliamFriedkin, 1980], and Looking For Mr. Goodbar [Richard Brooks, 1977]),concluding that these films fail to privilege a preferred reading and as a result,retain a high level of textual “incoherence” that could only have been resolvedby an explicit adoption of a radical discourse within the film, such as feminismor gay liberation (46-69). This idea of incoherence is congruent with Kuhn’sargument about the new women’s cinema, which like the films of recent yearsthat I have discussed, “want to let everybody have their ideological cake andeat it, too. In other words, you’ll see deliberate ambiguities structured into82almost every film to come out about strong women” (Lesage in Kuhn, 129).And this sort of structured ambiguity makes an attempt to read against the grainof such texts (as a feminist intervention) seem quite inappropriate, as JudithMayne notes (35-36), since it is nearly impossible to decide (except arbitrarily)what the “grain” of the text is.This desire to establish a “grain” within the text itself often resolves itselfin a criticism that creates a hierarchy of political value in order to recuperate ordismiss individual mainstream films. The opposing, yet nonetheless equallypossible, ideological “messages” that I have suggested in relation to SingleWhite Female, for example, and that Mellen (526) and Haskell (390) havesuggested in relation to The Turning Point (noted in the first chapter),demonstrate the difficulty of establishing textually preferred meaning, and thedanger of applying relativistic political labels, such as “progressive” or“reactionary” to film texts:Similarly, the idea of a ‘progressive’ text can be ratherunsatisfactory, the first problem being that it often implies that afilm has got one, fixed meaning. [... I Another problem with theidea of a ‘progressive’ text, or textual device, is the idea thatparticular films or strategies are progressive (or reactionary) forall time, for all audiences, in all contexts. In a way, this is thesame problem, because it assumes what the ‘meaning’ of a filmis, in the sense that it has behind it an idea of meaning assomething that is always already there and complete in the film...”(Brunsdon 122).It is quite clear in the context of modern “ambivalence” that a singular,uncontradictory meaning does not inhere within the text itself, but rather, is theproduct of a reader’s response; and, it becomes clear by analogy that meaningwas never really “always already there.” Meaning is found shifting across acomplex interplay of a film’s historical milieu, its address of an audience, the83various reading conventions that it may mobilize depending on the individualspectators’ social construction, and so forth. Feminist critics have thus becomeincreasingly aware that strategies of reading against the grain in order tocounter “reactionary” meanings (already there) with “progressive” discourses(that the critic creates) are not only inadequate to the task of politicallyevaluating recent film texts, but also fall short in the more general task oflocating textual meaning, which is always already mediated by the viewer/critic:But if a feminist reading against the grain does not take intoaccount the ways in which female audiences have beenconstructed in the course of film history, then we risk developinga kind of tunnel vision that never sees much beyond thelivingrooms of contemporary feminist critics watching I 930s andI 940s movies on television. However obvious it may be, it isworth recalling that feministL and ‘female’ are not the same thing,and if feminist critics can undermine the ideology of the classicalcinema, this hardly means that women viewers throughout filmhistory have resisted the ideology of film spectacle simply byvirtue of being female. (Mayne Women 28)Many feminist film theorists have thus turned their attention to what goeson outside their own practices of spectatorship. Thumirn’s Celluloid Sisters, forexample, combines textual analysis of a group of the most popular films of theforties, fifties and sixties in Britain with a sociological account of actual viewers’response to the films, and the way they impacted on their lives. The women’sreported identification with Barbara, and the fashion trends started by TheWicked Lady, which I mentioned in the first chapter, are read symptomatically,toward an understanding of how women of the period found meaning andpleasure in such film texts, and thus, how such texts contributed to the socialconstruction and containment of feminine identity in that milieu. And it is this84type of symptomatic reading that speaks to the place of ambiguous texts suchas female buddy films in our current social formation:Arguments and counterarguments about what is potentially progressiveor reactionary about individual films can go on indefinitely. I think thatfeminist criticism gets much more to the heart of the matter when wedeal with and embrace the ambiguity for which such differing argumentsare a symptom, rather than declare films to be really progressive orreactionary, tentatively feminist or sexist to the core” (Mayne Women36).When Thelma and Louise was released in 1991, it touched off a majorcritical debate about this very issue of “progressiveness” in mainstreamcinema. But the film also struck a chord in popular media, spawning manyThelma and Louise-style narratives, such as an episode of The Simpsonstelevision show in which Marge and her neighbour-lady take a “girls’ night out”and end up being chased by the police, who drive past the women over a cliff,although they do not drop any distance, because the canyon is a full garbagedump. A more subtle example of this sort of homage is found in a Visacommercial, in which a group of wacky old ladies drive around the countrypaying for stuff with their Visa card, including their fines for speeding when theyare pulled over by a state trooper. At the end of the ad, a close-up of the cardreveals the owner’s name to be Thelma. The movie was also used in a cartoonin The New Yorker, in which two men complain to a bartender, ‘We thought wewere going out with Laverne and Shirley, but it turned out to be Thelma andLouise” (Dowell 28). Many critics have called the film “feminist” (Dargis 17;Taubin 19), but many more have characterized aspects of Thelma and Louisein exactly the opposite manner(Cross 33; Grundmann 36): “Rather thanheroines for women, Thelma and Louise have made their most indelible markas cautionary figures for men. (Less noted is the fact that they serve as a85warning to women, too.) [...l]t does little more than fill a male formula withfemale forms” (Dowell 28).The ubiquity and extremity of the cultural commentary on Thelma andLouise is best read symptomatically, indicating something greater than anythingthat is coherently expressed by the film itself. In this regard, Elayne Rappingpoints out, that while she does not consider it to be a feminist film “in anycoherent sense of that term,” Thelma and Louise nonetheless “owes its life tosecond wave feminism and its twenty-five year aftermath” (30). Rapping notesthat the film fails to make “any clear political statements... [but that] its attentionto details of genre convention and contemporary gender issues.., have made alot of people committed to the sexual and cultural status quo uneasy” (30). Sheconcludes her discussion of what she sees as an unwarrantedly extremecritical reaction to the film (both as “progressive” and “reactionary”), stating:Still, the furor surrounding this movie pleases me. Especiallybecause it isn’t an explicitly feminist movie, produced by thepoliticos as an ‘intervention.’ Rather, it simply takes for grantedcertain things first expressed by feminists, which now, apparently,are part of an oppositional way of thinking shared by a majority ofwomen and lots of men. That’s a good thing, I think. (Rapping32)Not only Thelma and Louise, but female buddy films in general, I would argue,can be read as symptoms (although the term sounds overly clinical, and in anegative way) of the greater degree to which feminist discourses circulatewithin the culture in a naturalized way. These discourses are not necessarilyprivileged or preferred in the text, but are nonetheless available (for those whowish to appropriate them for this end) as an ideological rubric under whichthese female buddy films can be understood and enjoyed by an audience theyaddress as female. The films’ textual discourses, as I have shown in chapter86three, are often contradictory and ambiguous; but the ‘trickle-down” legacy ofsecond wave feminism does offer the possibility of reading them in an at least“feminist-inspired” (Haskel I 375) manner.While this type of liberalization of an initially radical ideological agendacould be considered recuperative, the purist critique of such culturalincorporation and popular appropriation, which suggests that “oppositionalpractices should retain a kind of radical copyright[,].. . makes it very difficult toimagine any kind of social change” (Brunsdon 121). James Lynn suggests asimilar line of reasoning, specifically in relation to feminism:Although the projection of patriarchy as the ideology of ideologiescertainly implies that crucially important aspects of women’s oppressionhave remained more or less unchanged since the dawn of the ages, itseems both mistaken and--more significantly perhaps for a movementthat is nothing if not political--tactically immobilizing to overlook thehistorically changing character of the patriarchal meditation on thefeminine. (Lynn 7)In this light, is important to remember that the portrayal of women’s friendshipsin Hollywood film has in fact developed in accordance with the changing times,insofar as: there are larger numbers of friendships carrying narrativesignificance being created; such portrayals have crossed many genericboundaries, expanding the field of action where women’s friendships figure;and also in that the depiction of the friendship often establishes it as animportant and positive aspect of the characters’ lives. But it is equallyimportant to bear in mind that this does not amount to a coherent feminist worldview being created by or reflected in such films.In this way then, the female buddy films I have considered are no moreinherently “progressive” or “conservative” than the films depicting femalefriendship in the new women’s cinema, or in the classical woman’s film, for that87matter. None of these groups of films can claim a coherent feminist world view,as all are marked by ideological ambiguity and unresolved contradictions. Theextremely ambivalent discourses surrounding female friendship (and otheraspects of women’s roles) under patriarchy, that bubble at the surface ofmodem films, are more often than not merely superficial variations on the samecontestational issues that feminist critics, reading against the grain,“discovered” stuffed between the cracks of classical Hollywood’s woman’sfilms. But what has changed, of course, is the “character of the patriarchalmeditation on the feminine” (Lynn 7); and the emotional resonance that a filmsuch as Thelma and Louise has created within the whole of popular culture,amidst scores of contradictory meanings circulating around it, can thus be readas a symptom of a growing feminist impact on social hegemony. It is thetrickle-down effect of feminist consciousness over the past three decades offilm production and consumption—informing the way female buddy films createtheir audience, and how that audience creates the films’ meanings—which thusdifferentiates this most recent cycle of female friendship films from its historicalpredecessors. Feminism itself is now held out as one of the many options(such as motherhood, career, female friendships, and marriage) facing womenin modern versions of and variations on the woman’s film, and is thusrepresented with the same degree of ideological ambivalence as the traditionalchoices. Ideological conflict is played out more overtly in the women’s filmmarket of today—as evidenced in the (albeit tentative and contradictory natureof) explicitly feminist discourses allowed by the female buddy films--while thefilms individually retain a large degree of ambiguity vis a vis feminism, as ameans of invoking, but refusing to commit to, a potentially alienating sociopolitical movement.8889Notes to Chapter 5I. This may have as much to do with the gradual erosion within academe ofthe dominance of American New Criticism, in which the “text itself’ (as thoughsuch a concept has any potency free of its historical context, means ofproduction and its reader) was taken to be the exclusive site of meaning, as itdoes with a change toward the production of incoherent texts.90WORKS CITEDBrunsdon, Charlotte. Films for Women. Ed. Charlotte Brunsdon. London:British Film Institute Publishing, 1986.Cross, Alice. “The Bimbo and the Mystery Woman,” Cineaste 18, No. 4 (1992):32-34.Dargis, Manohla. “Roads to Freedom,” Sight & Sound 1, No.3 (July 1991): Lauretis, Teresa. Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, andFiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.Dowell, Pat. “The Impotence of Women,” Cineaste 18, No. 4 (1992): 28-30.Geraghty, Christine “Three Women’s Films.” Films for Women. Ed. CharlotteBrunsdon. London: British Film Institute Publishing, 1986. 138-145.Grundmann, Roy. “Hollywood Sets the Terms of the Debate,” Cineaste 18, No.4 (1992): 35-43.French, Brandon. On the Verge of Revolt: Women in American Films of theFifties. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1978.Haskell, Molly. From Reverence to Rape, 2nd ed. Chicago: The University ofChicago Press, 1987.Kolker, Robert Phillip. “Woman as Genre.” Women and Film. Ed. Janet Todd.New York: Holmes and Meier, 1988. 130-149.Kuhn, Annette. Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema. Boston:Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.Lynn, James. “Introduction,” Women and Film. Ed. Janet Todd. New York:Holmes and Meier, 1988. 3-21.Mayne, Judith. Cinema and Spectatorship. New York: Routledge, 1993.“The Female Audience and the Feminist Critic.” Women andFilm. Ed. Janet Todd. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1988. 22-40.91McCreadie, Marsha. The Casting Couch and Other Front Row Seats: Womenin Films of the 1970s and 1980s. New York: Praeger, 1990.Mellen, Joan. “The Return of Women to Seventies Films.” Quarterly Review ofFilm Studies 3 (FaIl 1978): 525-543.Palmer, William J. The Films of the Eighties: A Social History. Carbondale:Southern Illinois University Press, 1993.Rapping, Elayne. “Feminism Gets the Hollywood Treatment,” Cineaste 18, No.4(1992): 30-32.Taubin, Amy. “Ridley Scott’s Road Work,” Sight & Sound 1, No.3 (July 1991):18-19.Thumim, Janet. Celluloid Sisters: Women and Popular Cinema. London:MacMillan, 1992.Vlasopolos, Anca. “The ‘Woman’s Film’ Genre and One ModernTransmutation: Kramer vs. Kramer,” Women and Film. Ed. Janet Todd.New York: Holmes and Meier, 1988. 114-129.Wood, Robin. Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan. New York: ColumbiaUniversity Press, 1986.


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