Welcome to Auteuse Theory


Welcome to Auteuse Theory. The purpose of this blog is to allow us to think about and write about a range of films made by women, from silent re-discoveries to the latest releases, from activist documentaries to mainstream Hollywood features, taking in examples from across the globe, whether famous or obscure. We have no desire to force ham-fisted links between very different films and very different filmmakers, to insist that they fit some pre-designated template of women’s cinema. Quite the opposite; we want to explore the diversity of forms taken by women’s filmmaking across different nations and eras. So why focus on women as a separate category at all? Why isolate their films from those of their male peers and think about them as some kind of exceptional or special case? Well, there’s still the matter of persistent inequality of opportunity within certain key authorial roles in the film industries. We all know the stats: even now, post-Bigelow Oscar win, women only constitute 10% of directors globally, and 15% of screenwriters. This is an improvement on previous years but it’s still (obviously!) a very minor proportion of the whole. As the British director Lynne Ramsay has commented, it’s ‘a bit like a country not being filmed – and that country not having a voice. It really does matter.’ And although we are very reluctant to make simple equations between the fact of there being a woman being at the helm of a film and that film offering a more complex picture of femininity (there have always been battalions of male directors who are very good at telling female-focussed stories), there is nonetheless plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that this is often true.

Our main subject is film but we will inevitably make forays into television and other media from time to time. We will be focussing predominantly on films directed by women, but we’re also interested in including films which demonstrate female authorship in other ways (writing, producing or performance). And we won’t be thinking about those films solely as women’s films. We don’t want to ghettoise them, so we’ll be connecting them to the time and place of their production, or their place within a genre or a movement, as much as we connect them to each other. There will be no rhyme or reason to the films that we discuss or the order in which they appear, instead we’ll be hoping for serendipitous connections, unexpected correspondences, sharp contrasts, strange juxtapositions; in other words, a blog that aims to be perpetually different and surprising. Most of the writing will be undertaken by the two main authors but interspersed with guest reviews from others who will each bring a fresh perspective.

And, finally, why the title Auteuse Theory? We were scouting around for a name that indicated a response to the old-fashioned auteur theory, and its insistence on ‘virility’ as a marker of directorial quality (all that Hawks and Ford worship). Women hadn’t only been marginalised in the making of films but the select few who had managed to break through were often given short shrift in the founding critical histories of film (with the exception of the highly problematic case of Leni Riefenstahl), until feminist scholars put Arzner, Weber, Guy-Blache, Lupino and Varda back into the picture. And this work of excavation and rediscovery continues – see the Women Film Pioneers and Women and Silent British Cinema websites for ongoing examples. We are aware of the problems of using the French feminised form of a professional name, drawing a gendered distinction between male and female practitioners (just as some publications reject the word actress in favour of actor for both men and women), but in the spirit of subversion, we wanted to occupy and feminise a word - auteur - which still sits at the heart of so much film scholarship and film appreciation. And although the blog is called Auteuse Theory, it might be more appropriate to think in terms of 'theories', the more intellectually generous plural form. These are some theories and thoughts and ideas arising from watching these films made by women. We hope you enjoy reading them…


Sunday, 26 April 2015

Tied Up In Knots: In Defence of Fifty Shades of Grey



Richard McCulloch (Regent’s University London)
 

After several weeks of critical derision, rowdy cinemagoers, and one bizarrely controversial fancy-dress costume, Fifty Shades of Grey now appears to have stepped into an elevator and walked out of our lives; at least until the sequel. Many people, I’m sure, will be relieved to see the back of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of E.L. James’s phenomenally successful erotic novel, but I am not one of them. I saw the film the weekend it opened, and have been arguing about it with my students, friends and colleagues ever since. 

Yes, it is rife with contradictions. Its tone, for instance, appears playfully ironic one moment, deadly serious the next, while its gender politics seem to tread a peculiar line between misogyny and female empowerment. But it is precisely these contradictions that I think make the film so interesting and effective.  

I cannot remember the last time I went to the cinema and left with such an overwhelming need to talk about what I had just experienced. I had absolutely no idea whether I had enjoyed myself or not, nor could I say how I felt about either of the protagonists, yet these ambiguities fascinated me.  

Having now watched it for a second time, what I want to do in this article is to address some of the prevailing complaints directed at it by professional critics, and offer up a defence of sorts. It is not exactly a masterpiece, but I think Fifty Shades is far more sophisticated than has so far been acknowledged, and it certainly deserves better than to simply be laughed at and discarded. What many people have dismissed as a trashy mess – a tame, vanilla porno with unrealistic characters – I see as an entirely self-conscious romance, whose only major ‘failing’ is that it does too good a job of aligning us with its protagonist.

 
CRITICISM #1: It’s not sexy enough

COUNTER-ARGUMENT: Ana’s reaction to the sex is far more important than the sex itself

When they weren’t competing with each other to see who could come up with the best headline (‘Porn again, Christian,’ ‘Making a bad fist of it,’ etc.), most critics spent their reviews of Fifty Shades explaining how dull they found it. The bulk of this criticism, however, had little to do with pacing or the romantic drama at the centre of the plot, and instead focused on the film’s sex scenes. Reviews were littered with lines such as:

 

‘About as erotic as an ad for Pottery Barn’ (Rolling Stone)

‘Porn for people who shop at Marks & Spencer’ (The Mirror)

‘Those looking for hot, kinky sex will be disappointed’ (USA Today)

‘Nobody in the film has visible genitals’ (Entertainment Weekly)

‘Anyone hoping the movie would really push the S&M envelope may find Christian’s tastefully shot toy room a little… vanilla’ (New York Daily News)

 

Clearly, critics not only wanted but also expected some kind of sexual ‘excess’, and became frustrated when the film apparently refused to give it to them (ahem). What these complaints demonstrate is a struggle over the film’s genre; Fifty Shades is implicitly being categorised as erotica/pornography above all else – sexually explicit material whose primary goal is to arouse its audience. One reviewer even went as far as calling it ‘the movie that promised to be the most titillating motion picture ever made.’

But where on earth has this generic expectation come from? It seems to me that this criticism has much more to do with the hype surrounding Fifty Shades (both novel and adaptation) than the movie itself.  

Its marketing campaign undoubtedly has a lot to answer for here, with posters and trailers continually teasing prospective audiences about Mr. Grey’s ‘very singular’ sexual predilections. Promotional materials often chose to hide parts of Christian (Jamie Dornan) from the audience, depicting him from behind, through enigmatic close ups, or with his face partially obscured (Figure 1).
 


- Figure 1. Fifty Shades of Grey poster (2015)

Similarly, trailers gestured towards steamy sexual encounters without really revealing very much. Perhaps, then, some critics took those gestures as ‘promises’ of what the film would surely deliver – the equivalent of a TV episode delaying viewers’ gratification by demanding they ‘tune in next week’ for narrative closure.  

I actually agree that the film is not especially risqué, but mainstream Hollywood has historically shown little interest in on-screen depictions of sexual dominance and submission. Why should we expect Fifty Shades to be any different?

While critics overwhelmingly bought into the idea that the film was trying and failing to be sexy, I would argue that those scenes were never intended to be focal points. Instead, they seem to function more as character identification devices than isolated moments of spectacle. In fact, there is ample evidence for this across various promotional materials. For instance, in spite of all the whips, restraining devices, and orgasmic writhing that the trailer fleetingly shows us, its clearest emphasis is on reaction shots of Ana (Dakota Johnson) (Figure 2).

 



- Figure 2. Reaction shots of Ana, as seen in the Fifty Shades of Grey official trailer
 

These shots position her as audience surrogate, and suggest that her response to (and curiosity towards) BDSM is far more important than the sex itself. Significantly, the first full-length trailer for the movie ended with Ana’s coquettish request for Christian to ‘enlighten’ her, while posters generally led with the tagline, ‘Curious?’ In one sense, then, the film adopts a strangely paradoxical attitude towards its own sexual content: BDSM is presented as both non-normative and a central selling point – elusive yet alluring. And crucially, this is just as true for Ana as it is for the mainstream viewer, both of whom experience the sex scenes as ‘educational’ rather than titillating. They might be fun, but ultimately they are just brief forays into implicitly unfamiliar territory.

CRITICISM #2: It’s sexist

COUNTER-ARGUMENT: Christian is sexist, but the film is not 

At one point in the movie, Christian explains his fondness for dominance/submission by telling Ana, ‘By giving up control, I felt free. From responsibility. From making decisions. I felt safe. You will too, you’ll see.’ On first viewing, I read this as blatant ideological conservatism – a barely-concealed dismissal of feminism, empowerment and individual agency: Be a dear and stop dreaming of freedom – if you do everything I want you to do, we all win! Similar concerns were echoed in a large number of reviews and think pieces, with writers variously proclaiming ‘misogyny never looked so mesmerising,’ or arguing that the film ‘idealises male power and emotional abuse as something seductive and sexy.’ 

My second viewing, however, made me realise that Fifty Shades’ ‘problematic’ moments are never actually presented as the ‘correct’ choice for Ana. Again, what many writers see as grounds for criticism, I see as psychological realism; Fifty Shades does such an effective job of aligning us with Ana’s emotions that we come out of it feeling just as conflicted, frustrated and unsatisfied as she does.
In the opening half-hour, for example, both Ana and the film are detached, cynical and playful, especially in their attitude towards Christian. When interviewing him near the beginning, she deviates from her roommate’s mostly deferential questions, calling him ‘lucky’ and a ‘control freak’. Importantly, her refusal to take Christian at face value is one of the things he seems to like most about her, as well as being one of the film’s central pleasures.


Ana also jokes that he would make ‘the complete serial killer,’ and in one of the film’s funniest scenes, drunkenly berates him for being ‘so bossy.’ Her subsequent impersonation of him undermines his hyper-masculinity (she adopts an exaggeratedly gruff voice) and his indecisiveness (‘Ana, let’s go for coffee! No! Stay away from me Ana, I don’t want you! Get away! Come here, come here! GO AWAY!’) Moreover, some of Christian’s most frequently-maligned lines of dialogue (‘If you were mine you wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week’) are met with incredulity from Ana, who delivers a brilliantly deadpan ‘What?!’ on several occasions. Moments like these consistently construct Christian as a ridiculous, unbelievable character, whose desire to control Ana deserves to be laughed at or criticised, not celebrated.

It is no coincidence that the film’s detached, playful tone gradually disappears at the same time that Ana herself begins to take Christian more seriously. Their ensuing romance is characterised by an increasingly uncomfortable tension between their competing desires. Ana is clearly attracted to him and intrigued by the BDSM, but yearns for a fairly conventional romance that never fully arrives (‘Why do I have to sleep in [a different room]? We slept in the same bed last night, like normal people!’). Christian, on the other hand, only seems interested in their sexual relationship, and repeatedly shows that he is unwilling to cross the line into romance.  

Because the film encourages such tight identification with Ana, the failure of the couple’s relationship is placed entirely at the feet of Christian and his refusal to compromise on his own desires. The tension between the two characters is manifested in the battle between her desire for ‘conventional’ romance and his desire for ‘unconventional’ sex.

The contract they negotiate throughout the film is thus very much a tangible reminder of Christian’s inflexibility, yet along the way there are plenty of hints that perhaps he isn’t really as stubborn as he appears: he insists, ‘I don’t do the girlfriend thing,’ but then sends her first editions of a selection of novels by her favourite author; he refuses to touch Ana until he has her written consent, but then declares, ‘Fuck the paperwork,’ and kisses her passionately in the hotel elevator; the first time the couple have sex is extremely conventional – nothing non-normative, a nice clean bedroom, and far closer to Ana’s idea of perfection than to his; and he sleeps in the same bed as her twice in the opening 45 minutes, something he claims he ‘never’ does. 

In short, Christian seems to want Ana far more than he wants to stick to his own ‘rules’, which are held up as preposterous and antithetical to the film’s narrative. In order for the narrative to conclude as it ‘should’ (i.e. with the union of the final couple), it is him that needs to change, not her.  

Yes, siding with Ana means that we want her to end up in a happy relationship with a ridiculous, controlling man, but this is not the same as saying that Fifty Shades of Grey endorses an abusive relationship. On the contrary, like Ana, we find Christian’s domineering behaviour both laughable and impractical. The closer their relationship veers towards the dominance/submission that Christian desires, the less happy Ana is, and it is absolutely significant that her final words to him are ‘STOP!’ and ‘NO!’

CRITICISM #3: It’s unrealistic

COUNTER-ARGUMENT: The film is consciously exposing the gap between the ‘fantasy’ and ‘reality’ of romance

When reviewing a new release that also happens to be a widespread cultural phenomenon, it is easy enough to get swayed by the power of consensus. Reading several reviews in preparation for writing this blog, however, I was struck by how few critics seemed willing to take Fifty Shades seriously. The Daily Mail’s Jan Moir’s review is typical in this regard, describing the film as…

‘A tale of two lovers exploring a relationship that takes in the wilder shores of bondage, submission, dominance and terrible dialogue. “Laters, baby!” cries hero Christian Grey, as he leaves his lover, Anastasia Steele […] “That was nice,” she says, after taking a bit of a thrashing from Grey. Nice? You’d think he just gave her a half-hearted peppermint foot rub.’


Philippa Hawker of the Sydney Morning Herald spoke in correspondingly negative terms, insisting that ‘no one can make the trademark phrase “laters, baby” sound anything other than ludicrous.’

It absolutely baffles me that anyone could criticise the film’s dialogue in this way, quite simply because it completely ignores the way in which the lines are delivered, and the context in which they appear. ‘Laters, baby’ is said first by Christian’s adopted brother to Ana’s roommate. When Christian then repeats it to Ana shortly afterwards, he does so with a knowing smirk on his face, highlighting its ‘corniness’ and turning it into an inside joke. In this moment, even Christian is capable of drawing attention to his own artificiality. Equally, the use of the word ‘nice’ to describe their sexual relationship is explicitly marked as incongruous by Christian, who says, ‘it’s been nice knowing me?! Let me remind you how nice it was!’

In a wonderful article for Slate, Amanda Hess goes as far as reading the film as ‘a kind of fan-fic of Fifty Shades the book.’ She argues that, between Sam Taylor-Johnson’s direction and Kelly Marcel’s screenplay, the source novel’s dialogue is laced with irony, which in turn makes its ‘bad’ qualities more palatable. While I am not entirely convinced that the film deems itself ‘superior’ to the book (fanfiction is not always resistant, for example), Hess persuasively demonstrates just how important tone is to understanding and appreciating the events on screen. Taylor-Johnson seems to want us to laugh at the silliness of love while simultaneously being swept up by it.

But Fifty Shades of Grey knows exactly what it is doing, and is extremely self-conscious and upfront about just how fantastical its romance narrative is. The clearest example of this is when the couple spends the night together for the first time, following Ana’s drunken night out in a bar. She awakens to find painkillers and fruit juice at her bedside, along with notes reading ‘Eat me’ and ‘Drink me’, respectively. These overt references to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland mark the couple’s relationship as dreamlike and fantastical from the start.

The movie’s soundtrack plays a central role in heightening this sense of fantasy, with lyrics often referring to escapist pleasures:

·         The opening montage unfolds over Annie Lennox’s cover of ‘I Put a Spell On You’, acknowledging romance’s potential to mislead and distort our perception of reality

·         Their first formal ‘date’, in which Christian whisks her away in his private helicopter, is accompanied by Ellie Goulding’s ‘Love Me Like You Do’. She sings, ‘I’ll let you set the pace / ‘Cause I’m not thinking straight / My head spinning around I can’t see clear no more / What are you waiting for? / Love me like you do.’ These words explicitly draw attention to Ana’s state of mind and the astonishing (albeit pleasing) unreality of this as a romantic experience, while the final two lines hint at her willingness to buy into the fantasy that Christian represents

·         The other song at the centre of the film (and its marketing) is a slowed-down, sexed-up version of Beyoncé’s ‘Crazy in Love’. Again, this is a song that, as its title implies, is very much about the potential for love to alter our sense of normality (‘Such a funny thing for me to try to explain / How I’m feeling and my pride is the one to blame / ‘Cause I know I don’t understand / Just how your love can do what no one else can’) 

If the film is signposting its own fantastical elements so consistently, there seems little value in dismissing its dialogue, characters, gender politics and/or sex scenes as ‘unrealistic’, let alone ‘harmful’. Taylor-Johnson’s goal is to not to see things objectively, but through Ana’s eyes, simultaneously finding Christian attractive and infuriating. The sex is an interesting distraction, but is certainly not the focal point of the film’s drama. By the half-way point, it is abundantly clear that Ana is less keen on an odyssey of sexual discovery than on a relatively ‘normal’ relationship. Her frustration and upset stems from her realisation that the relationship she yearns for is nothing but a fantasy, and impossible in practice.
 

CONCLUSION: Fifty Shades and women’s cinema

The reference point I keep coming back to in relation to all of this is Paul Verhoeven’s infamous Showgirls (1995). Roundly dismissed as trash? Check. Implausible characters, dialogue and acting? Check. Sexual content that ‘fails’ to titillate? Check. Yet Showgirls has enjoyed a modicum of critical re-evaluation since its release, with a growing number of people entertaining the idea that its ‘unpleasantness’ is actually intentional satire, not incompetence (Hunter, 2000; Mizuta Lippit et al., 2003; Nayman, 2014).

Also like Showgirls, Fifty Shades of Grey already has all the trappings of a stone cold cult classic – a chaotic production process (James and Taylor-Johnson argued extensively), critical derision, passionate fans, wildly divergent interpretations, and cultural notoriety. Yet the criticism surrounding the film has been so vehemently gendered that anyone who actually likes it has to either call it a ‘guilty pleasure’ or keep schtum. It is significant that, when I first told my students how great I thought it was, the reaction was overwhelming laughter, followed by disbelief. It is also significant that I knew such a reaction was likely.

The idea that movies aimed at women are inherently less valuable than those aimed at men is as pervasive as it is ridiculous, making it difficult to avoid being taken in by the cultural narrative of critical haughtiness. Debates around both novel and film have, for example, been characterised by a sneering condemnation of female sexuality (particularly regarding older women and ‘mommy porn’), and accompanied by a succession of news stories about unruly women behaving hysterically. One widely-publicised report even described how a woman watching Fifty Shades in Milton Keynes literally lost control of all her bodily functions, causing the cinema to be evacuated.

Of course, when you read past the headlines, it becomes clear that this admittedly unfortunate incident had more to do with the lady in question being heavily drunk than the film she happened to be watching at the time. But it’s not a story if it’s reported like that, is it?

Like Christian Grey himself, critics have remained fixated on Fifty Shades’ sex while refusing to take its romance seriously. Pejorative references to Mills & Boon novels, daytime soap operas, and uncritical female audiences position the film as ‘lowbrow’, and romantic love stories as intrinsically worthless. Needless to say, there is a great deal of hypocrisy in criticising something for being anti-feminist while simultaneously deriding a genre traditionally associated with female audiences.  

Significantly for this website, Fifty Shades of Grey’s opening weekend in North America broke box office records for a female director. Not only that, but this cultural phenomenon has been built on a rare degree of female authorship. Between Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight novels on which E.L. James’s based her fanfiction and subsequent novel, Kelly Marcel’s screenplay, Taylor-Johnson’s direction, and a widely-praised performance by Dakota Johnson, this is by some distance one of the most prominent examples of women’s cinema to come out of a major Hollywood studio in recent years.  

Irrespective of all the hype, critical backlash and commercial success, however, Fifty Shades is also a really sophisticated piece of filmmaking. I admit I went in expecting a load of trashy nonsense that I could laugh at. What I didn’t expect was a film that was in on the joke, but also smart enough to slowly reel me into the narrative without having realised it. I left the cinema despising Christian Grey but somehow also annoyed that he and Ana do not end up with each other, and it took me a good 24 hours of introspection and discussion with others before I managed to come to terms with that contradiction.

After Ana first meets the much-hyped but mysterious Christian, she tells her roommate, ‘He was very smart and intense […] I can understand the fascination.’ I’m saying the same about the film as a whole. If you stayed away because of the bad reviews, or if you saw it once and hated it, I urge you: cast aside your preconceptions and try again. I can’t promise you won’t end up like Ana – frustrated and yelling for it to stop – but find out for yourself what makes it tick rather than just believing all the rumours you’ve heard.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Hunter, I.Q., ‘Beaver Las Vegas! A Fan-Boy’s Defence of Showgirls’. In Xavier Mendik and Graeme Harper (eds.) Unruly Pleasures: The Cult Film and its Critics (Guildford: FAB Press, 2000): 189-201.

Mizuta Lippit, Akira, et al., ‘Roundtable: Showgirls’, Film Quarterly, 56.3 (Spring 2003): 32-46;

Nayman, Adam, It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls (Toronto: ECW Press, 2014).

 

Monday, 9 February 2015

Le Petit Prince a dit (Christine Pascal, 1992)

NEIL SINYARD



When I first saw Christine Pascal’s Le Petit Prince a dit (1992) some twenty years ago at my local arts cinema, I was so moved that I missed its next (and final) showing because its poignancy was still resonating so powerfully in my mind. I’ll catch up with it again later, I thought. I’m still waiting. On my list of favourite movies awaiting a proper dvd and blu-ray release, this has occupied top spot for some time.
The subject-matter could hardly be less enticing, concerning a ten-year-old girl who is diagnosed as having an inoperable brain tumour and only a short time to live. Yet Pascal’s handling of it is faultless. All dangers of mawkishness or morbidity are scrupulously avoided. For one thing, father (Richard Berry) and mother (Anemone) are not happily married but happily divorced, which is a piquant complication. Also the girl, Violette (Marie Kleiber) is not cuddly cute but plump and petulant i.e. real and believable. And the handling of the revelation of her illness is satisfyingly oblique rather than overtly sentimental. Her scientist father  accidentally discovers it through an overheard conversation  and his scrutiny of a scanner screen in a cold hospital room. Her actress mother learns about it midway through rehearsing an opera in Milan. Life has a way of cutting the rug from under your feet when you are least expecting it. When the father has to explain her illness to the girl, he does it by diagram and behind dark glasses: evasion takes a while to give way to emotion. He will eventually snatch her from the examining table and take her to visit her mother in Milan and then to their family home in Provence, believing that prolonging the child’s life for two more years of painful surgery will be less beneficial  than a joyful holiday break and perhaps the illusion that father and mother have been reunited.
The midsection of the film makes superb use of its locations. The off-season hotels and the open roads, with their deceptive promise of release and freedom, gather a momentum of gentle melancholy. During the final scenes a stray dog that Violette has adopted on their travels goes missing; the father is distracted as he eases Violette’s stepmother out of their cottage so the parents can be together for what could be the girl’s final hours; the mother adopts a tone of strenuous cheerfulness; Violette becomes a bit exasperating. Everything builds to the concluding moments where the girl is about to fall asleep, with her head hurting terribly. The father grips her pillow so tightly that his knuckles show. A mercy killing, if not enacted, is surely being contemplated, at which point the film mercifully stops.
The performances are all superb, and Bruno Coulais’s lovely score put me in mind of  Ravel at his most gravely beautiful. One particular image has stayed with me: the moment when a butterfly lands almost caressingly on Violette’s forehead whilst she is asleep in the country and then flies away. It is as if Nature has come to bless a departing spirit.
Two years or so after seeing the film, I read with deep sadness and shock that Christine Pascal had committed suicide at the age of 42 by throwing herself out of the window of a private hospital near Paris where she was being treated for severe depression. ( Her psychiatrist was later fined and imprisoned for ignoring the danger signs and not ensuring her safety and protection.) Not having seen her other films as writer/director, I remember her mostly though her career as an actress, particularly in five fine films she did for Bertrand Tavernier; and I think of her as someone who, like her one-time flat mates, Isabelle Huppert and Isabelle Adjani, could have become a leading light of post-1970s French cinema. She is extraordinary as one of the sisters in Andrzej Wajda’s  exquisite Young Ladies of Wilko (1979). Her superb acting of the young woman’s breakdown when the hero departs seems to pierce further than mere romantic disappointment: it is more suggestive of someone sustaining an emotional wound that a lifetime will not heal. That kind of hypersensitivity permeates Le Petit Prince a dit, which for me belongs with Rene Clement’s Jeux Interdits and Louis Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants as one of the great French films about childhood and about the unforeseen tragedies that can befall children. Yet as with Christine Pascal, so with the film: it is the beauty that lingers in the memory more than the sadness. What is sad is that a dvd copy of the film is still so hard to obtain. The film should surely be part of a full, widely available retrospective set that commemorates and celebrates the acting and directing career of this remarkably talented artist. I am ready for my second viewing now.
 
[first published in Sight and Sound, January 2015]

Monday, 26 January 2015

Marleen Gorris and Antonia's Line (1995)

NEIL SINYARD



 
Antonia’s Line won the Oscar for the best foreign language film of 1995, the first film by a female director ever to accomplish this feat. The woman in question was the Dutch film-maker, Marleen Gorris, who had sprung to prominence with her sensational debut film, A Question of Silence (1982). Under the guise of a thriller about the seemingly motiveless murder of a male boutique owner by three women previously unknown to each other, the film was an audacious feminist polemic that stormed the citadels of oppressive patriarchy. Made almost as a kind of avant-garde movie which therefore pulled no punches, the film’s uncompromising originality propelled it into the mainstream, where it became hugely controversial.  Rather like the legal figures at the end of the film who fail to see that the huge explosion of derisive female laughter is directed at them, hypersensitive male critics missed the film’s mode of black comedy and were offended by its seeming proposition that the solution to patriarchy might be murder. (It was not proposing that, any more than cannibalism was being seriously offered as a solution to poverty and starvation in Jonathan Swift’s political pamphlet, A Modest Proposal: both satirists were taking up an extreme position and suggesting a metaphor that highlighted the horror of a particular social situation in the hope that the oppressors might feel some guilt and shame.) Possibly goaded by the angry accusations of an anti-male bias that bordered on hatred, Gorris’s second film was the even more ferocious Broken Mirrors (1984), whose main setting is a brothel in a city where a serial killer is on the loose.  1They’re all bastards,’ says the  proprietor about the clientele of her Happy House brothel to a new girl, who, significantly, has become a prostitute out of economic necessity. ‘Even the nice ones aren’t nice.’  Ironically, the only sympathetic male character in the film is literally a dirty old man,  a harmless,  unseen hermit who is befriended by the brothel-keeper, but who ,to her dismay, is expelled from his hideaway because he is not ‘normal’, the implication being that the ‘normal’ male is much more of a threat.

 

The vehemence of Gorris’s feminism in her first two films even discomfited some feminists, who accused her of being not so much provocative as paranoid. (See, for example, Pam Cook’s review of Broken Mirrors in Monthly Film Bulletin, April, 1985: 114) Nevertheless, The Last Island (1990) continued in much the same vein, being a feminine Lord of the Flies for grown-ups, in which a motley group of men and women are shipwrecked on an island, fall out, turn violent, and where only the women survive. Still, the characterisation of the men is more complex than before; and this strain is continued in Antonia’s Line, which is mellower and even upbeat in effect and allows some males to exhibit such hitherto unacknowledged characteristics as kindness, unselfishness and compassion. Here the nice ones stay nice. Admittedly, the narrative is still unashamedly female-driven and dominated, and the most sympathetic man is a philosophical recluse who would make even  Schopenhauer look cheerful by comparison. Yet there is a greater generosity of spirit to all humankind, and an exuberant relish for life’s variety that sweeps up everything in its path. When it was shown at the Toronto Festival, the film was given a standing ovation.

 

The story is told in flashback by Antonia (a superb performance from Willeke  van Ammelrooy), remembering her past on what she has decided is to be the last day of her life; and also by a narrator who only at the end reveals herself to be Antonia’s great-granddaughter, Sarah. The point of view is important, for, whereas at the beginning  it is said of their community that “ men’s noise rode roughshod over {a woman’s] silence”, the women  will gradually be given a voice; will insist on making themselves heard; and will  assume power over their own lives and, crucially, their own sexuality. When Antonia and her daughter Danielle  (Els Dottermans) have first returned to Antonia’s home village just after the war to attend to her dying mother and take over the family farm, they have walked past a wall which has the sign ‘Welcome To Our Liberators’ scrawled over it. It no doubt refers to the Allied soldiers who have liberated the village after the war, but, in retrospect, it will apply equally to Antonia and Danielle, who will go some way towards liberating the community from its chauvinism, prejudice and conformity.

 

Over a number of years Antonia’s farm will become a kind of benevolent matriarchy, a haven for the misfits and the maltreated of the village.  These include the retarded Deedee (Marina de Graaf), who, in an early scene reminiscent of Thomas Hardy, has been offered up for sale by her brutish father. When she is being sexually abused in a barn by her brother, Pitte, Danielle leaps to her defence by impaling Pitte with a pitchfork and taking her back to the farm. Deedee will bond with Loony Lips, who has been taken under her wing by Antonia when he is being persecuted by the sons of  Farmer Bas (Jan Decleir), a relative newcomer to the village (he has only been there twenty years). Bas will be impressed by Antonia’s humanity and courage and will propose marriage. ‘The sons need a mother,’ he says. ‘But I don’t need your sons,’ says Antonia, who will refuse his offer but will later enter into a relationship with him of deep mutual affection. In the meantime, the growing Danielle decides she wants a baby. ‘And what about a husband to go with it?’ asks Antonia. ‘I don’t think so,’ she replies. Danielle will have a daughter, Therese (Veerle van Overloop), who will turn out to be a mathematical genius. Danielle herself will become a gifted painter and fall in love at first sight with Therese’s teacher, a moment signalled when Danielle, who has always had a vivid imagination,   immediately transforms her in her mind’s eye into a vision of Botticelli’s Venus.

 

And so it goes on. A friend, who has helped Antonia find a suitable young man to father Danielle’s child, turns up at the farm and immediately falls for a curate,  who has just left the church because he found it too constricting for his innate sense of happiness; and together they will produce twelve children. If all this sounds impossibly idyllic, one should add that the film is not blind to the darker sides of life. Although a kindly and much loved tutor to Antonia’s offspring, the hermit Crooked Finger (Mil Seghers) can never shake himself free from his conviction of the fundamental cruelty and futility of existence, and he will commit suicide. Loony Lips will die in an accident and Deedeee will be inconsolable, until reminded that ‘life wants to live’ and she must carry on. In the most disturbing section of the film, Deedee’s contemptible brother, Pitte returns to the village and, in retaliation for Danielle’s attack on him all those years before, pays her back by raping (offscreen) her daughter, Therese. All out for revenge, Antonia will arm herself with a shotgun, but, on confronting the rapist, she curses rather than kills him, saying that killing is not in her nature. Women give life, not take it; to do the latter would be fighting a monster like him with the very weapons they deplore. Curiously, though, the curse  casts its spell. Later that night, Pitte is to be beaten up by the sons of Farmer Bas; and when he returns home, he is murdered by his brother, who has always hated him.

 

The fulfilment of Antonia’s curse seems like an element in a fairy-tale, and is an example of the film’s narrative and stylistic fluidity. Although grounded mainly in earthy naturalism, paying particular attention to collective enterprise and the women’s domestic labour on the farm, the film also has whimsical flights of fantasy and surrealism. Antonia’s mother sits up in her coffin to sing ‘My Blue Heaven’ at her own funeral ; a statue of Mary suddenly smiles; a stone angel uses its wing to clobber an unholy priest who has refused the last rites to a man who sheltered Jews during the war. This rich stew of disparate elements- magical realism, bucolic revelry, Europeanised gloom- was not to everyone’s taste; and even an admirer of the film like Robin Wood thought that the film’s Utopian fantasy, ‘miraculously exempt from the incursions of corporate capitalism’ was inconsistent with other details of the film, such as the fact that this village, which seems removed from most of the trappings of modern civilisation, is nevertheless situated in close proximity to a large modern university. ‘We need empowering utopian fantasies,’ he wrote, but added that ‘they must take into account the conditions within which we actually today exist and struggle, for how can we strive to reach a utopia in which it is impossible to believe?’ (Wood: 316-17) However, it is possible to take the film as essentially as a folk-tale or matriarchal fable with, in the words of a Sight and Sound review (May, 1997: 59) “all the magic of a Chagall painting.” Certainly the film is less concerned with social realism and evolution  than with the eternal life-cycle of birth and death. This is  nicely conveyed in the circling camera movement as Therese’s new-born baby girl is handed from villager to villager in an act of communal blessing; and also suggested in the narrator’s summation that ‘as this long chronicle draws to a conclusion, nothing has ended.’

 

Since Antonia’s Line, Gorris has moved from filming her own original screenplays and tended to specialise more in heavyweight literary adaptations. She crafted a fine cinematic interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s feminist classic, Mrs Dalloway (1997), starring Vanessa Redgrave; and an interesting version of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Luzhin Project (2000), with John Turturro and Emily Watson. With Emily Watson again, she also made a compelling adaptation of Eugenia Ginzburg’s harrowing but ultimately heroic personal memoir as a literary professor in the Stalinist era sentenced to ten years hard labour in Siberia, Within the Whirlwind (2009), which has had only a limited worldwide release. Recently she has directed a television mini-series about the life of Rembrandt. Antonia’s Line remains her biggest international success thus far, with audiences relishing its warm vitality, lusty femininity and gutsy resilience in the face of patriarchal prejudice and pressure, though, in my view, Robin Wood is right in suggesting  that A Question of Silence still stands as ‘her finest achievement to date’ (Wood: 317)  In that film, the women’s laughter in the courtroom that concludes the trial, undermining the confidence and certainty of arrogant male authority, is as liberating as  Ibsen’s notorious and resonant slammed door that concludes A Doll’s House. A Question of Suilence alone will ensure that Gorris remains a permanent icon of feminist film at its most powerful,  provocative and pertinent.

 


Suggested Reading

 

Pam Cook             ‘Review: Broken Mirrors,’ Monthly Film Bulletin,

          April, 1985,p.114.

Maggie Humm      ‘Author/Auteur: Feminist Literary Theory and Feminist

         Film’ in Feminism and Film, Edinburgh University Press,1999, pp.90-111.

Barbara Koenig Quart  Women Directors: The Emergence of a New Cinema,

          New York: Praeger, 1988.

Neil Sinyard            ‘A Question of Gorris’, Dutch Crossing, Winter,1997,

          pp.100-116.

Tom Tunney and

Geoffrey McNab      ‘Review: Antonia’s Line’, Sight and Sound, May, 1997,p.59.

Robin Wood              Sexual Politics and Narrative Film, Columbia University Press,

         1998, pp.315-17. 

 

            

Friday, 21 November 2014

Cold and Hungry: Discourses of anorexic femininity in Frozen (2013)


Su Holmes







On the 14th November, 2014, I had my first McDonalds. As I was driving home I leant forward and instinctively clicked on song no.22: ‘Let it Go’. Purchased for my 3 year old daughter, this was not a song that I usually listened to alone. It was normally the context for a rousing duet, belted out between us in the car (even whilst I am instructed, at regular intervals, to ‘stop singing Mummy!’). But as I listened and sang, the words began to get stuck in my throat and I felt hot tears streaming down my face. What was going on? I had listened to this song at least 100 times before. I mulled over the experience for a couple of days before typing the words ‘Elsa/ anorexia/ Frozen’ into Google, and felt a mixture of fear, surprise and recognition as the search returned a sizeable number of results. What had felt like a deeply personal or even ‘crazy’ reading was suddenly made real and given social validation. As one blogger wrote, ‘I’m glad it wasn’t just me who saw it’, whilst another stated, ‘To me, the whole story seemed to accurately parallel the path I and many others have taken to suffering and recovering from an eating disorder’. I’m not sure about ‘accurate parallel’ (and as someone who lectures on and writes about the media, I’m aware of a heightened and pre-disposed cynicism toward the Disney films, particularly with regard to the representation of the female leads). But I do know that having suffered from anorexia for 20 years, and after being fully recovered for five (it just took me a while to tackle a McDonalds),  I felt a personal connection with Frozen’s lead song and then, as I thought more, with the symbolism of its characters and narrative possibilities.


‘Well, now they know…’
Given Frozen’s unprecedented popularity (and it is also the first film to be (co) directed by a woman to gross over one billion dollars), it will no doubt become the focus of considerable academic research. So far, however, it has been popularly deconstructed in blogs, reviews, fan forums, fan fiction, and social media, clearly questioning the idea that Disney ‘successfully invites mass audiences to set aside their critical faculties’ (Bell et al, 1995: 4). Commentators have variously debated its apparent status as Disney’s first real venture into feminism, its potential for a ‘queering’ of the Disney fairytale, its problematic status as quite literally, Disney’s whitest film, and the extent to which it can be read as a narrative about mental illness and the social stigma, struggles and isolation which sufferers may endure.


Some bloggers have offered quite detailed comparisons of how Elsa’s narrative of repression, secrecy, loneliness and ‘othering’ can be read in relation to the plight of anorexia, with comparisons made to their own experiences. Others have created fan-fiction in which Elsa is literally anorexic, whilst others still have simply wanted to share interpretations and to stimulate debate. As one pro-ana blogger asked, ‘Don't you think Elsa, from Frozen, is the stereotypical anorexic girl?’, whilst a male viewer confided: ‘When my wife and I saw Frozen for the first time with the kids a few months back we left the theater overwhelmed with the eating disorder connection. No one we talked to saw the symbolism’. Critics and fans were also quick to point out that the second version of  ‘Let it Go’ was released by Demi Lovato, ‘whose struggle with eating disorders and triumphant public reemergence has uncanny parallels with Elsa's plight: Substitute rehab for an ice castle and you can fill in the details yourself…' There has even been the suggestion that the message of the film, and ‘Let it Go’ in particular, offers helpful discourses on recovery, with one American clinic even using its symbolism and lyrics in eating disorder therapy.


Women in the Disney animation films have been regularly lambasted for their perpetuation of extreme and unrealistic images of the slender ideal and Frozen, which has drawn its female leads with exaggerated eyes wider than their waists and ‘lollipop’ heads, has generated particular concern in this regard. As such, the suggestion that Frozen may have something to say about the potentially fatal misery of anorexia, as well as the possibility of conquering it, is surely worth some thought.


Female Sexuality: ‘Conceal it, don’t feel it…’
If considered in relation to the abundant feminist work on eating disorders and anorexia in particular, these readings of Frozen are simply offering particular interpretations of femininity in the film – a topic which has been unsurprisingly prominent in debates about the Disney princess films (Bell, et al, 1995, Davis, 2007). This is because much feminist work on anorexia has argued that the problem is an extreme manifestation of the oppressions, struggles and contradictions involved in inhabiting a female identity in Western patriarchal society. The early authors, writing just after Second Wave feminism and in a culture that was apparently witnessing a considerable rise in eating disorders, linked the problem to the consequences of the Women’s Movement, and the resulting contradictions and pressures surrounding the female role (see Houston Grey, 2011). Some authors invoked the importance of the mother-daughter relationship (Chernin, 1985, Orbach, 1986), emphasising the anorexic’s fear of assuming a traditional, domestic and maternal role. Desire was also seen as particularly central here, in so far as anorexia was seen as the ‘solution’ to a culture in which, despite a process of socialisation intended to curtail the woman’s needs, she continued to feel ‘her own needs and desires intensely’ (Orbach, 1986: xvii). In this respect, starvation was theorised as a means of controlling, containing or even eradicating female desire. Yet feminists also see the political connotations of anorexia as contradictory. So whilst the anorexic body might be seen as taking the patriarchal slender ideal to extremes, it can also be seen as a form of resistance through the body  - the rejection of traditionally female subjectivity and sexuality, and an escape into a childlike, boyish or defeminised form (Bordo, 1993).


If anorexia is about female sexuality, so is the narrative and symbolism in Frozen. Frozen is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, and in in fairy tales, magic is often linked to sexuality.It is thus not a huge leap to read Elsa’s magic abilities as a metaphor for powerful female sexuality, and as one critic notes, her powers ‘are connected to her emotions and mature with age’.   Furthermore, the mantra of ‘conceal it, don’t feel it’, is handed down via the patriarchal lineage of her father (and her mother, in contrast, plays no significant narrative role). What is presented as a great responsibility clearly weighs heavily on young Elsa, and the rules she must follow require her to remain sequestered in the private sphere. Anna emerges here as the confused younger sister, bewildered about what is wrong with her older sibling, compared, in some readings, to the extent to which siblings are often misguidedly shielded from the realities of an eating disorder and any ‘talk of the illness’ within the family. Anna’s repeated pleas to engage in playful activities – as articulated through the keyhole in Elsa’s door - offer an evocative image of a childhood lost to anorexia. Elsa’s incarceration, and the repeated shots of Anna knocking at her door, also fit neatly and visibly with feminist writer Marilyn Lawrence’s description of anorexia as living ‘behind the walls of your own solution… [Anorexia] is in a real sense a “No Entry” sign (1984: 21). Elsa, like the anorexic, represents a walled self, someone who is ‘closed up’ and ‘not receptive, nor there for others’ (Ibid: 94) (‘Go away Anna’). As Lawrence expands, self-denial in our culture is often regard as a ‘good thing’ from a moral point of view, but this is especially the case for women who are seen as ‘more inherently prone to ‘badness and moral weakness’ (Ibid :95).
To be sure, Elsa’s incarceration can be read as a metaphor for queer sexuality which must be shut away for fear that it will influence or ‘infect’ her younger sister. In fact, it is important to note here that the queer and anorexic readings need not be seen as oppositional or separate. The feminist (and certainly the psychiatric) work on anorexia has historically pivoted on an assumed heterosexuality. But more recent empirical research has shown how, with regard to lesbian girls/ women, anorexia can indeed develop as a means of repressing or evacuating the feelings of ‘forbidden’ lesbian desire,  whilst offering a means of ‘looking straight’ by taking to extremes the thin, heterosexual ideal (see Jones and Malson, 2013 ).
But the moral and social restrictions placed upon Elsa can just as easily be read a hyperbolic dramatisation of the condition of femininity, to which many feminists read anorexia as a response: if Elsa’s magic powers stand in for female sexuality, she is effectively being warned by her father of the appropriate sexual conduct of a woman befitting her royal (class-defined) status - instructed to live a cold and solitary life disconnected from her own desires. As Cassandra Stover observes, the newer Disney princess films from the early 1990s onwards tend to dramatise seemingly more liberated heroines who are trapped in the worlds created for them, yearning to escape (2012: 4). In positioning the women in what are effectively pre-feminist worlds (trapped by ‘marriage pressure or royal status’), this enables their feisty spirit and ‘breakout’ strategies to offer an illusion of post-feminist autonomy. Frozen might well be seen as fitting this trajectory given that Elsa’s enforced incarceration appears very far from ‘modern’ – later enabling the great ‘breakout’ sentiment of ‘I’m free’ - and her royal status and magic powers can be read as effectively a cover story for a ‘general discomfort around sexuality in all its forms’.


‘You look beautifuller’: Eating desire
Yet what is clearly Anna’s budding and growing sexuality appears to cause no such consternation or trouble. Anna is not only warm, vibrant and funny, all the things that Elsa is apparently not, but we also see evidence of literal, and not just sexual, appetite. As she leaps exuberantly around the corridors on coronation day singing ‘For the first time in forever’, she tells with yearning of the things the day may bring, including a potential male partner.  Overcome with excitement and anticipation, she sings:


I suddenly see him standing there,


A beautiful stranger tall and fair [shot of a male bust made of chocolate].


I want to stuff some chocolate in my facccccccccccceeeeeee


The last line is muffled as she gorges on handfuls of chocolates – although she notably partially hides her face behind her fan which offers a more delicate and traditionally ‘feminine’ signifier than eating.  Anna then picks up the chocolate bust and throws it, with the sculpture landing with a ‘plop’ on top of an elaborate cake. The equation of eating / sexual appetite is explicit here: her imaginary suitor is made of chocolate, and the mountain of chocolates appears as an ‘answer’ to her desire (she has not met him yet). This equation between food and desire is also apparent in ‘Love is an Open Door’, when Anna completes Prince Hans’ line ‘We finish each other’s’ with the word ‘sandwiches!’.  In comparison, witness the exchange between the two sisters when they meet for the first time in years at the coronation dance:



Elsa: You look beautiful


Anna: Thank you – you look beautifuller… I mean not fuller. You don’t look fuller, but… more, more beautiful


Elsa: What is that amazing smell?


Elsa/ Anna (in unison): Chocolate!


Not only does Anna’s comment make clear that to be full in figure or stomach is not to be beautiful, but her stuttering anxiety about how to refer to Elsa’s physical appearance is comparable to the minefield of how (or whether) to refer to an anorexic’s physicality. (Don’t say ‘you look well’, ‘you look better’, and definitely don’t say ‘you look fuller’). Their giggly celebration of ‘chocolate!’ - which immediately brings them together in both speech and movement - also seems to represent a throwback to childhood: it recalls a playful time when they were together, before responsibility, repression and restriction got in the way. 


But in comparison with Elsa, Anna, it seems, shows just the right level of desire. Although she is chastised in the narrative for being too hasty and ‘desperate’ in her search for a male suitor (she nearly dies at the hands of the uncaring and exploitative Prince Hans whom she agrees to marry after one day), her desire is acceptable because it is channelled into heterosexual courtship and ultimately, we assume - with regard to her relationship with Kristoff - marriage. (The narrative rejection of Hans for Kristoff also emphasises the importance of a more egalitarian and ‘modern’ relationship).  This differing treatment of the two female leads may further support a queer reading, and Elsa is certainly horrified when Anna’s announces that she is eager to cement her status as a heterosexual bride and marry Prince Hans. But the really interesting point about Elsa is that she is constructed as essentially asexual. This is not so much at the level of physicality: although stick thin, the women have hourglass figures, and Elsa is sexualised during the transformation sequence in ‘Let it Go’, which is complete with falling tresses and a ‘come hither’ glance over her shoulder. But she is represented as asexual in the clear absence of human-directed desire which, as suggested, is symbolised by her magic powers. This indeed seems to be a departure for Disney, and can again be read in relation to discourses of anorexia. The anorexic is often read in terms of asexuality, whether this is interpreted as a retreat from (or resistance to) adult femininity, or an ‘excessive’ attempt to emulate the unattainable slender ideal. 


It is important to note, however, that one of the most obvious triggers for anorexic readings of Frozen, and ‘Let it Go’ in particular, is found in Elsa’s references to the ‘good’ and ‘perfect girl’ (‘Be the good girl you always have to be’/ ‘That perfect girl is gone!’). When one blogger asks ‘Don't you think Elsa, from Frozen, is the stereotypical anorexic girl?’, her reference to the word ‘stereotype’ attests to the fact that the post-war stereotype of the white, middle-class girl with perfectionist tendencies (who is terrified of not living up to parental expectations) still holds a certain currency. The American psychotherapist Steven Levenkron who treated Karen Carpenter, for example, wrote a popular book on anorexia entitled The Best little Girl in the World [1978] (Saukko, 2008: 63). Yet again, although specifically highlighted in relation to anorexia, this can be read as merely a hyperbolic dramatisation of the expectations surrounding femininity as socially pleasing, reflecting the early feminist arguments that anorexia speaks to women’s wider troubles relating to self-determination and entitlement. Feminist work has seen the idea of thin and frail femininity for example, as exemplifying the extent to which women are supposed to take up less physical and social space. In comparison, ‘‘Fat’ is the external sign of voracious appetite; it intrudes into masculine space’ (MacSween, 1995: 249). Indeed, in a critique of how the female characters in Frozen have ‘eyes larger than their wrists’, it was reported in a Daily Mail article how the Disney characters’ diminutive features send the troubling message that to be loveable, it’s best to take up almost no space at all…’


‘No right, no wrong, no rules for me’?
If drawing on my personal experience, there is little doubt that ‘Let it Go’ blasts out a triumphant and rousing sentiment that is evocative of recovery from anorexia, or from an eating disorder more generally.  The suggestion that:


It's funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me

Can't get to me at all!

offers a powerful reminder of what is it like – once recovered – to look with incredulity at the rules, restrictions and punishments you have faithfully followed for so long. The suggestion that ‘It's time to see what I can do/ To test the limits and break through’ also conjures up the feeling of what it was like to try to restart my life after 20 years, waiting to embrace the opportunities of life which suddenly seemed so plentiful, so open and so endless. I was free.


Yet this sentiment, as well as the promise of ‘Let it Go’, is also somewhat utopian. In ‘Let it Go’, Elsa equates society, and social rules, with the suppression and repression of her true self. But as her self-incarceration in the beautiful but isolated ice castle shows, it is not possible to live outside of society and its expectations and ‘rules’. (Plus, as any anorexic knows, the cold is actually a killer). After all, she realises in ‘For the First Time in Forever (Reprise)’,  ‘I’m such a fool I can’t be free! (no escape from the storm inside)’. This is not to suggest that full recovery from anorexia isn’t possible. It is, I’ve done it: food no longer invades my every waking minute and dominates the structure of each day. But if, as the feminist work argues, ‘troubles relating to self-determination and gender identity affect all women in sexist societies, with anorexics simply representing the gravest end of the continuum [my emphasis] (Saukko, 2008: 5), then even in recovery, there is no utopian space ‘outside’ of the female social self. In a culture which foregrounds dieting and calorimetry as normal preoccupations for women, the female self (often reduced to body) will always be judged and surveilled, seen as the most important indicator of her being.  ‘Let it Go’ is powerful because it offers an impossible, or at least only temporary, fantasy that it is possible to be live outside of social norms. Returning a considerably tempered Elsa to Arendelle - she will only use her powers in what appear to be ‘de-fanged’ and insignificant ways - Frozen is in fact realistic about the impossibility of living in a world in which the subject is entirely autonomous and self-governing.


To be sure, there are certainly limitations to the feminist work on anorexia. It fails to account, for example, for why not all women suffer from anorexia, and why some (like Elsa), are the chosen ones. But it nevertheless provides a compelling account of the ways in which anorexia is inextricably linked to the condition of femininity in patriarchal society, and why anorexia should be positioned on a continuum with ‘normal’ femininity. Frozen invokes connotations of anorexia because the film is about the repressions and restraints of being female.


But whatever its meanings, and for whomever, ‘Let it Go’ is a beautiful and powerful song. Now, when we play the song in the car, I listen to my daughter sing along, missing out words as she eagerly waits for the chorus. I hope every day that she will find an easier route to growing up female than Elsa, or me. Maybe one day I will tell her about my journey, and why her Mum more than shared her fascination with Frozen. But for now, I just enjoy the musical pleasure we share. I click on the song, put the car into gear, and I smile.


References


Bell, E, Haas, L and Sells, L (eds) (1995) From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender and Culture, Indiana: Indiana University Press.


Bordo, S (1993) Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body. London: University of California Press.


Chernin, K (1985) The Hungry Self: Women, Eating and Identity. New York: Harper Collins.
Davis, Amy (2007) Good Girls and Wicked Witches: Women in Disney’s Feature Animation, London: John Libbey.
Jones, R, Malson, H (2013) A critical exploration of lesbian perspectives on eating disorders. Psychology and Sexuality 4 (1): 62-74.
Lawrence, M (1984) The Anorexic Experience. London: The Women’s Press.
MacSween, M (1995) Anorexic Bodies: A Feminist and Sociological Perspective on Anorexia Nervosa. London: Routledge.
Orbach, S (1986), Hunger Strike: the Anorectic’s Struggle as a Metaphor for Our Age. London: Faber & Faber.
Saukko, P (2008) The Anorexic Self: A personal and Political Analysis of a Diagnostic Discourse. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Stover, C (2012) ‘Damsels and Heroines: The Conundrum of the Post-Feminist Disney Princess’, A Journal of Transdisciplinary Writing and Research from Claremont Graduate University, Volume 2, http://scholarship.claremont.edu/lux/