Betty Friedan, “The Feminine Mystique”


Betty Friedan’s book, released in 1963, is often credited as a catalyst for second-wave American feminism. Almost 15 years after de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Friedan approaches the problem of sexism through the lens of midcentury American consumer culture: television, advertising, education, pop psychoanalysis, and housewifery. In a wonderfully 50s moment, she concludes the book by asserting that

“the energy locked up in these obsolete masculine and feminine roles is the social equivalent of the physical energy locked up in the realm of E=MC2 – the force that unleashed the holocaust of Hiroshima. I believe the locked-up sexual energies have helped to fuel, more than anyone realizes, the terrible violence erupting in the nation and the world during these past ten years. If I am right, the sex-role revolution will liberate these energies from the service of death and will make it really possible for men and women to ‘make love, not war'” 532.

Of course this did not occur (Linda Williams investigates the inefficacy of the ‘make love, not war’ slogan in Screening Sex), but Friedan’s text may well have helped to unleash a sexual revolution whose effects were indeed far-ranging. Friedan’s setting is a 1950s America where girls dye their hair blonde and eat chalk to appeal to men, where women break down if they cannot breastfeed because their identities are so bound to young motherhood 59. Friedan identifies women as the victims of their own consumer power, the endlessness of which constantly promises fulfillment and never delivers, producing instead “the problem that has no name” 57. The popularity of psychoanalysis “cracked the door” into the potentially unhappy lives of housewives and the anxiety of unmarried women, too.

The world of images offered to women are fluffy, crammed with color, food, fashion, and sexual pursuit of men, but “where is the world of thought and ideas, the life of the mind and spirit?” 83. In part, it is sublimated into housewifery, as magazine headlines like “Cooking is Poetry to Me” and “The Business of Running a Home” suggest 93. While the heroines of the 30s were strong, young, and gay, those of postwar America are gender-circumscribed and vapid.

“The feminine mystique says that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity… so mysterious and intuitive and close to the creation and origin of life that man-made science may never be able to understand it… The mistake, says the mystique, the root of women’s troubles in the past is that women envied men, women tried to be like men, instead of accepting their own nature, which can find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love” 92.

The madonna/whore complex is reinscribed as the mother/career girl divide 95. Even female writers and editors contributed to the problem out of a sense of guilt and loss 109.

Friedan claims that this is the result of the “troubles of the image-makers” trapped in the “frantic race” of capitalism, which “force[s] the men who make the images to see women only as thing-buyers” 119. In making women mindless and bored, consumer society is also having more trouble selling to them. This push to sell means that the manipulators are guilty of using their insights to sell women things which, no matter how ingenious, will never satisfy… They are guilty of persuading housewives to stay at home, mesmerized in front of a television set” 326. (One of the most insidious ads she cites, the famous Clairol “Does she or doesn’t she?” was actually written by a woman, Shirley Polykoff.) Women are told that they are running a business, for which they must continue to buy specialized supplies. They stretch housework that should take a few hours to great lengths of time, since their sense of self rests on the illusion that they are needed at home, working full-time.

Friedan also critiques Freud for what she feels is his misogyny – his relegation of women as inferior beings complementary to men (the One, etc.). She also holds that directing all of women’s desire to sexuality and homemaking has bred a generation of sexually potent but frustrated women. If sex is the only thing left to make women “feel alive,” what happens then? (She mentions Lolita on 383- the redirection of male energy to less demanding sex objects than wives, who now expect too much from sex.) Thus, she theorizes (it sounds as nuts now as her concluding paragraph) that women are oversexed, men are cheating, and boys are homosexuals because of the pent-up energies of housewives 385. Friedan’s concern is with the children who then go on to marry young and have children: “the tragedy of children acting out the sexual phantasies of their housewife-mothers” as “one sign of the progressive dehumanization that is taking place” 392.

In the hyperbolically titled “The Comfortable Concentration Camp,” Friedan explores the problems of the arrested development of these young women – they are weak, undereducated, and lack a sense of self, which they have sacrificed to the family and to consumer ideology. She ends by advocating that colleges and places of work accommodate maternity leave, hire pregnant women, etc. In a society where women are functional and intellectual equals,

“The split image will be healed, and daughters will not face that jumping-off point at twenty-one or forty-one… they will not have to ‘beat themselves down’ to be feminine; they can stretch and stretch until their own efforts will tell them who they are… And when women do not need to live through their husbands and children, men will not fear the love and strength of women, nor need another’s weakness to prove their own masculinity… the time is at hand when the voices of the feminine mystique can no longer drown out the inner voice that is driving women on to become complete” 512.

I copy the Wikipedia summary below to save myself some of the structural summarizing of this long and detailed text:

Chapter 1: Friedan points out that the average age of marriage was dropping and the birthrate was increasing for women throughout the 1950s, yet the widespread unhappiness of women persisted, although American culture insisted that fulfillment for women could be found in marriage and housewifery; this chapter concludes by declaring, “We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.'”

Chapter 2: Friedan shows that the editorial decisions concerning women’s magazines were being made mostly by men, who insisted on stories and articles that showed women as either happy housewives or unhappy, neurotic careerists, thus creating the “feminine mystique”—the idea that women were naturally fulfilled by devoting their lives to being housewives and mothers. Friedan notes that this is in contrast to the 1930s, at which time women’s magazines often featured confident and independent heroines, many of whom were involved in careers.

Chapter 3: Friedan recalls her own decision to conform to society’s expectations by giving up her promising career in psychology to raise children, and shows that other young women still struggled with the same kind of decision. Many women dropped out of school early to marry, afraid that if they waited too long or became too educated, they would not be able to attract a husband.

Chapter 4: Friedan discusses early American feminists and how they fought against the assumption that the proper role of a woman was to be solely a wife and mother. She notes that they secured important rights for women, including education, the right to pursue a career, and the right to vote.

Chapter 5: Friedan, who had a degree in psychology, criticizes Sigmund Freud (whose ideas were very influential in America at the time of her book’s publication). She notes that Freud saw women as childlike and as destined to be housewives, once pointing out that Freud wrote, “I believe that all reforming action in law and education would break down in front of the fact that, long before the age at which a man can earn a position in society, Nature has determined woman’s destiny through beauty, charm, and sweetness. Law and custom have much to give women that has been withheld from them, but the position of women will surely be what it is: in youth an adored darling and in mature years a loved wife.” Friedan also points out that Freud’s unproven concept of “penis envy” had been used to label women who wanted careers as neurotic, and that the popularity of Freud’s work and ideas elevated the “feminine mystique” of female fulfillment in housewifery into a “scientific religion” that most women were not educated enough to criticize. [vs. Barbara Johnson’s argument]

Chapter 6: Friedan criticizes functionalism, which attempted to make the social sciences more credible by studying the institutions of society as if they were parts of a social body, as in biology. Institutions were studied in terms of their function in society, and women were confined to their sexual biological roles as housewives and mothers as well as being told that doing otherwise would upset the social balance. Friedan points out that this is unproven and that Margaret Mead, a prominent functionalist, had a flourishing career as an anthropologist.

Chapter 7: Friedan discusses the change in women’s education from the 1940s to the early 1960s, in which many women’s schools concentrated on non-challenging classes that focused mostly on marriage, family, and other subjects deemed suitable for women, as educators influenced by functionalism felt that too much education would spoil women’s femininity and capacity for sexual fulfillment. Friedan says that this change in education arrested girls in their emotional development at a young age, because they never had to face the painful identity crisis and subsequent maturation that comes from dealing with many adult challenges.

Chapter 8: Friedan notes that the uncertainties and fears during World War II and the Cold War made Americans long for the comfort of home, so they tried to create an idealized home life with father as the breadwinner and mother as the housewife. Friedan notes that this was helped along by the fact that many of the women who worked during the war filling jobs previously filled by men faced dismissal, discrimination, or hostility when the men returned, and that educators blamed over-educated, career-focused mothers for the maladjustment of soldiers in World War II. Yet as Friedan shows, later studies found that overbearing mothers, not careerists, were the ones who raised maladjusted children.

Chapter 9: Friedan shows that advertisers tried to encourage housewives to think of themselves as professionals who needed many specialized products in order to do their jobs, while discouraging housewives from having actual careers, since that would mean they would not spend as much time and effort on housework and therefore would not buy as many household products, cutting into advertisers’ profits.

Chapter 10: Friedan interviews several full-time housewives, finding that although they are not fulfilled by their housework, they are all extremely busy with it. She postulates that these women unconsciously stretch their home duties to fill the time available, because the feminine mystique has taught women that this is their role, and if they ever complete their tasks they will become unneeded.

Chapter 11: Friedan notes that many housewives have sought fulfillment in sex, unable to find it in housework and children; Friedan notes that sex cannot fulfill all of a person’s needs, and that attempts to make it do so often drive married women to have affairs or drive their husbands away as they become obsessed with sex.

Chapter 12: Friedan discusses the fact that many children have lost interest in life or emotional growth, attributing the change to the mother’s own lack of fulfillment, a side effect of the feminine mystique. When the mother lacks a self, Friedan notes, she often tries to live through her children, causing the children to lose their own sense of themselves as separate human beings with their own lives.

Chapter 13: Friedan discusses Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and notes that women have been trapped at the basic, physiological level, expected to find their identity through their sexual role alone. Friedan says that women need meaningful work just as men do to achieve self-actualization, the highest level on the hierarchy of needs.

Chapter 14: In the final chapter of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan discusses several case studies of women who have begun to go against the feminine mystique. She also advocates a new life plan for her women readers, including not viewing housework as a career, not trying to find total fulfillment through marriage and motherhood alone, and finding meaningful work that uses their full mental capacity. She discusses the conflicts that some women may face in this journey to self-actualization, including their own fears and resistance from others. For each conflict, Friedan offers examples of women who have overcome it. Friedan ends her book by promoting education and meaningful work as the ultimate method by which American women can avoid becoming trapped in the feminine mystique, calling for a drastic rethinking of what it means to be feminine, and offering several educational and occupational suggestions.

Edmund Burke, “A Philosophical Enquiry”


Burke sets out to define and explore beauty with greater precision than has been done before. He defines taste as the judgment of imagination and art 13. He gives language as a sort of proof for universal taste, and locates sight as perhaps the simplest aesthetic source of agreement: we all prefer sunshine and swans to clouds and geese, he claims 15. Taste is a composite, moving from the senses through the imagination up to the level of understanding – it is not a separate faculty.

Burke argues that our minds are more apt to trace resemblances than differences “because by making resemblances, we produce new images, we unite, we create, we enlarge our stock, but in making distinctions we offer no food at all to the imagination” 18. Though knowledge has increased over time, Taste has not changed 19. Aesthetics are common across nations and classes of men through “the pleasure arising from a natural object, so far as each perceives it justly imitated… the sympathy proceeding from a striking and affecting incident” 20. We differ in the degree, not the manner, of our response, either through closer attention to the object or greater natural sensibility to its charms 21.

Bad taste arises from “a defect of judgment” which is either “a natural weakness of understanding” or “a want of proper and well-directed exercise” 23. For Burke, like Kant and Schiller, aesthetic training promises what Kant calls a sensus communis, where the “common sense” that unifies man’s faculties is translated to communal taste.

Curiosity is the first of our emotions, but it is fickle and unfaithful in its pursuits 29. Burke separates pain and pleasure, holding that both are positive – but that the removal of one does not cause the other. Rather, each is something instantly felt as a positive value, not merely something that occurs in the other’s absence 31. Delight is the removal of pain, whereas pleasure is the positive experience.

The passions surrounding individual preservation hover around pain and danger, and they are the ones we feel most powerfully 36. For Burke, anything that excites terror is sublime. The preservation of mankind must be incited by a great pleasure (sexual pleasure), but its absence is not significantly painful 38. Men do not make love in seasons because reason already moderates the frequency of sex. The pleasure of sex is a mixture of love and lust, and the object of this feeling is women.

Burke wonders why beauty, which is separable from the sexual, should inspire feelings of tenderness in us – why God ‘designed’ it so 39. He turns first to sympathy, which is “a sort of substitution, by which we are put into the place of another man, and affected in many respects as he is affected… it is by this principle chiefly that poetry, painting, and the other affecting arts, transfuse their passions from one breast to another, and are often capable of grafting a delight on wretchedness, misery, and death itself” 41. I’m struck by how this model of sympathy poses it as a form of metaphor or figuration.

But we also take delight in the pain of others, namely when it occurs in artifice, for imitation “is never so perfect, but we can perceive it is an imitiation” 43. Imitation is a pleasure in itself. When the object is something we would otherwise not have interest in, an artwork has its strength mainly in mimesis (form, not content) 45. When the object is something spectacular, then the artwork is mainly about the object itself (content, not form) 46. Burke concludes the section by acknowledging that if he has made mistakes, he at least “clears the way for others” 50.

The next section investigates the sublime and the beautiful. Burke once again emphasizes the primacy of the visual. The sublime must be something we cannot fully know, but this is actually better effected by language than visual imitation 54. “A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea,” since a great idea will appear boundless 58. God, for this reason, is sublime. Burke compares length, height, and depth as modes of the great dimension of the sublime [these are also the visual dimensions of cinema – think Linda Williams on Avatar!] Depth is more sublime (looking down) than looking out or up can be 66. “No work of art can be great, but as it deceives,” and this it does by dimensions that appear boundless, but, paradoxically, not in excess 70.

Magnificence, which is the profusion of things, is also sublime [faceting]. Stars are not beautiful as one, but in their number.

“In works of art, this kind of grandeur, which consists in multitude, is to be very cautiously admitted; because, a profusion of excellent things is not to be attained, or with too much difficulty; and, because in many cases this splendid confusion would destroy all use, which should be attended to in most of the works of art with the greatest care; besides it is to be considered, that unless you can produce an appearance of infinity by your disorder, you will have a disorder only without magnificence” [Jameson, postmodernism, hysterical realism] 72.

“There are also many descriptions in the poets and orators which owe their sublimity to a richness and profusion of images, in which the mind is so dazzled as to make it impossible to attend to that exact coherence and agreement of the allusions” 72.

Smell and taste have a lesser role in greatness than sight and even sound [think of Vivian Sobchack: cinema is not touch itself, but s(t)imulates it]. Burke turns to beauty next. He contends, vs the Greeks, that beauty is not in proportion or measurement. He uses the scientific method to claim that if “two bodies produce the same or a similar effect on the mind,” the properties in which they agree, rather than disagree, should be examined 85. Beauty is varied not just between species of flora and fauna, but individuals of the same species (women). Still, “there is a certain proportion in each species absolutely essential to the beauty of that particular kind,” and “the beautiful in each kind will be found in the measures and proportions of that kind” 90. (This is where Kant will divide beauty and free beauty.)

If beauty were utility – the suitedness of a particular being to “answer its end,” then we would find many things beautiful that we instead find ugly 95. To be beautiful, the imagination must “revolt against the reason” 99. Burke considers that women affect weakness and silliness because “beauty in distress is much the most affecting” 100. We do not love the father’s authority as we do the mother’s tenderness 101. Beauty is “some quality in bodies, acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses” 102. Thus beauty is the mediated sensual experience of the object. Beauty is usually small, whereas the sublime is usually large (TV/cinema).

Burke then moves on to claim that every lovely thing is smooth: leaves, flowers, streams, “coats of birds and beasts in animal beauties; in fine women, smooth skins; and in several sorts of ornamental furniture, smooth and polished surfaces” 104. (Already underlying this idea seems to be the lack of challenge beauty presents, vs. the sublime – it is facile.) “Any ruggedness, any sudden projection, any sharp angle, is in the highest degree contrary” to beauty 104. He even imagines the suturing of the gaze across a woman’s body – the smooth maze around her neck and chest where the eye wanders 105.

Burke finally turns to touch. He claims that pleasing surfaces “are so by the slightness of the resistance they make” – “bodies which continually vary their surface,” but never “suddenly… squares, triangles, and other angular figures, are neither beautiful to the sight nor feeling” 110. In the end, beauty and the sublime are so explicitly gendered in Burke that to state it is an embarrassment.

Burke admits that many of these are his own personal conclusions. He also writes, in advance of Sobchack, as it were: “Our minds and bodies are so closely and intimately connected, that one is incapable of pain or pleasure without the other” 121. Some have periodized this as a loss in postmodernism, but it would be interesting to counter that with “cinesthetic bodies.” Love is one such connection of the mind and the body (beauty and lust) 136. Burke ends by beginning to prioritize poetry, since “words… [are] capable of being the representatives of these natural things… able to affect us often as strongly as the things they represent, and sometimes much more strongly” 161. (Think of Forster and sympathy, as well as how Burke himself makes sympathy a figuration…) Still, the purpose of the treatise, he asserts, was to create a standard of taste across genres.


Vivian Sobchack, “Carnal Thoughts”



Sobchack begins by acknowledging that while film reviews see film as a bodily experience, scholars often do not. Benjamin himself “speaks of cinematic intelligibility in terms of ‘tactile appropriation’ and elsewhere he speaks to the viewer’s ‘mimetic faculty,’ a sensuous and bodily form of perception” 55. She cites Jonathan Crary and Linda Williams as exceptions, as well as Laura Marks’ “haptic visuality.” As Williams points out, we are uncomfortable with the extent to which the ‘low’ genres horror, pornography, and melodrama take hold of and manipulate us as viewers 57.

Our bodily response is unclear, however – “our lack of ability to explain its somatism as anything more than ‘mere’ psychological reflex or to admit its meaning as anything more than metaphorical description” 58. Sensual description in film criticism is considered “excess” (again, think Williams!).

“Contemporary film theory has had major difficulties in comprehending how it is possible for human bodies to be, in fact, really ‘touched’ and ‘moved’ by the movies” 59.

“Film experience is meaningful not to the side of our bodies but because of our bodies. Which is to say that movies provoke in us the ‘carnal thoughts’ that ground and inform more conscious analysis” 60.

“We need to alter the binary and bifurcated structures of the film experience suggested by previous formulations and, instead, posit the film viewer’s ived body as a carnal ‘third term’ that grounds and mediates experience and language, subjective vision and the objective image – both differentiating and unifying them in reversible (or chiasmatic) processes of perception” 60. [re: the chiasmus as suture, the dialectic – what about multiplicity or faceting?]

“The lived body both provides and enacts a commutative reversibility between subjective feeling and objective knowledge, between the senses and their sense or conscious meaning” 61.

Sobchack finds herself sensitized by The Piano – in terms of touch: “my fingers comprehended that image, grasped it with a nearly imperceptible tingle of attention and anticipation and, offscreen, ‘felt themselves’ as a potentiality in the subjective and fleshy situation figured onscreen” 63.  “Those fingers were first known sensually and sensibly as ‘these’ fingers and were located ambiguously both offscreen and on” [suture] 63.

“Our common sensuous experience of the movies; the way we are in some carnal modality able to touch and be touched by the substance and texture of images; to feel a visual atmosphere envelop us; to experience weight, suffocation, and the need for air… smell and taste are less called on than touch to inform our comprehension of the images we see… I did not think a translation of my sense of sight into smell or taste; rather I experienced it without a thought” 65.

“Our lived bodies relate to ‘things’ that ‘matter’ on the screen and find them sensible in a primary, prepersonal, and global way that grounds those later secondary identifications that are more discrete and are localized” 65 [diffuse sensuality].

For Sobchack, then, we exist as both here and there, sensing and sensible, subject and object: “Perception is the flesh’s reversibility, the flesh touching, seeing, perceiving itself, one fold (provisionally) catching the other in its own self-embrace” [think Irigaray, Poulet] 66.

“Meaning, and where it is made, does not have a discrete origin in either spectators’ bodies or cinematic representation but emerges in their conjunction. We might name this subversive body in film experience the cinesthetic subject – a neologism that derives not only from cinema but… synaesthesia and coenaesthesia” 67. [Nabokov, metaphors that cross senses]

“The cinesthetic subject both touches and is touched by the screen – able to commute seeing to touching and back again without a thought and, through sensual and cross-modal activity, able to experience the movie as both here and there rather than clearly locating the site of cinematic experience as onscreen or offscreen” 71.

Of course, as Ricouer points out in “The Rule of Metaphor,” this is not literal – but it represents a confusion of the senses “from the single system of flesh and consciousness that is the lived body” 73. Thus cinema is presentation and representation – a chiasmus [again, suture?] 74.

“Our sense of the literal and the figural may sometimes vacillate… However, insofar as I cannot literally touch, smell, or taste the particular figure on the screen that solicits my sensual desire, my body’s intentional trajectory, seeking a sensible object to fulfill this sensual solicitation, will reverse its direction to locate its partially frustrated sensual grasp on something more literally accessible… my own subjectively felt lived body” 76.

“I will reflexively turn toward my own carnal, sensual, and sensible being to touch myself touching, smell myself smelling, taste myself tasting, and in sum, sense my own sensuality” 77. [faceting – sex imbricated in this?]

“In the film experience, because our consciousness is not directed toward our own bodies but toward the film’s world, we are caught up without thought… in this vacillating and reversible sensual structure that both differentiates and connects the sense of my literal body to the sense of the figurative bodies and objects I see on the screen… my experience of my sensorium becomes heightened and intensified at the same time that it is perceived as general and diffuse” 77.

Thus the fabrics and feelings are “somewhat vague and diffuse… even as it may be quite intense… my gesture of specifically intending toward the screen to rebound diffusely on myself ultimately ‘opens up’  my body to a sensuality that is both literal and figural” 78. For Sobchack, touch is no longer a stretch in film, but a catachresis – not a proper metaphor in that it is a place we are forced to “confront and name a gap in language” like the arm of a chair or head of a pin, because we are supplementing linguistic deficiency 81.

“Reciprocating the figurally literal representations of bodies and worldly things in the cinema, the spectator’s lived body in the film experience engages in a form of sensual catachresis… it fills in the gap in its sensual grasp of the figural world onscreen by turning back on itself to reciprocally (albeit not sufficiently) ‘flesh it out’ into literal physicalized sense” 82. [think Lo-lee-ta]

“As cinesthetic subjects, then, we possess an embodied intelligence that opens our eyes far beyond their discrete capacity for vision, opens the film far beyond its visible containment by the screen, and opens language to a reflective knowledge of its carnal origins and limits. This is what, without a thought, my fingers know at the movies” 84.


D.A. Miller, “Anal Rope”


Criticism of Hitchcock’s Rope, D.A. Miller points out, always strives to make Hitchcock’s irregular approach (shots ranging from 3 to 9 minutes) into a string of identical 10 minute shots – the fantasy of the film done in one take, as it were 145. Nevertheless, this is also often considered a gimmick, even by Truffaut and Hitchcock himself, who said it was a “stunt” that violated his own interest in montage. At the same time, Hitchcock insisted later that he “maintained the rule of varying the size of the image in relation to its emotional importance within a given episode” 146. All of his explanations, however, continue to circle around the film’s technique.

In Truffaut’s short plot summary, Miller argues, the word “homosexual” stands out – it is not “furnished on the direct evidence of what we hear or see in the film,” unlike the other facts, so that “in an account that is attempting to reduce the story to its most abbreviated articulation, their homosexuality must seem at once a remarkable and a remarkably pointless piece of information” 147. Truffaut “constructs it into a homosexuality of no importance” 148. But in this culture, “a truly offhand reference to male homosexuality must hardly be credible… The heavy silence surrounding homosezuality requires explanation no less than the featherweight fussing over technique” 148.

“The reason that both questions have been unconsciously but definitively crossed with one another, so that technique acquires all the transgressive fascination of homosexuality, while homosexuality is consigned to the status of a dry technical detail…” 148.

“How do we think we know?” 149. It could not be named or shown because of the code, but the “post-coital nuances of the dialogue between Brandon and Philip after the murder” would be a place to start 149. “How did you feel – during it?” “I don’t remember feeling much of anything – until his body went limp, and I knew it was over, then I felt tremendously exhilarated,” etc. 149. “Connotation will always manifest a certain semiotic insufficiency,” Miller continues 150. “Connotation enjoys, or suffers from, an abiding deniability” 150. In this way, “Rope  exploits the particular aptitude of connotation for allowing homosexual meaning to be elided even as it is also being elaborated” 150.

“Until recently, homosexuality offered not just the most prominent – it offered the only subject matter whose representation in American mass culture appertained exclusively to the shadow kingdom of connotation, where insinuations could be at once developed and denied, where… one couldn’t be sure whether [it] was being meant at all… the silence necessary to keep about [the codes] deploy[ing it]” 151.

This engages an accumulative hunt for verification – “a redundancy of notations” 151. If Philip and Brandon are gay, why not the Michaelangelesque David, his friend Kenneth who is often mistaken for him, or their teacher Rupert as well? Hysterical and frigid Janet is there to “grant all three men an ostensible homosexuality” (everyone but Philip has dated her), “it does so by making suspiciously intense the homosocial bond between boyfriends” 152. Rupert’s excuse at the end, that the boys had no right to twist his words into action, restores the male heterosexual subject, and his gunshot is a sort of cathartic ejaculation 153. But the tension never clears in the film.

As the camera holds on them sitting in a triangle to await the police, “the moment… is eerie not just in the sense that one doesn’t know what to make of it, but also in the sense that one rather does… homosexuality provides the marking term, whose presence or absence is wholly determining for what lies on both sides of the virgule” 154.

“At Rope’s end… it is precisely the developed heterosexual subject who is most definitively implicated in a structure of homosexual fixation, a notion that accordingly proves to have perhaps as little to do with gay men as penis envy does with women” 155.

“Connotation, we said, excites the desire for proof, a desire that, so long as it develops within the connotative register, tends to draft every signifier into what nonetheless remains a hopeless task… the dream (impossible to realize, but impossible not to entertain) that connotation would quit its dusky existence for fluorescent literality, would become denotation” 155.

Thus a gay subtext always gives on to the imagined or desired spectacle of gay sex. It is less on the level of language than the image that this occurs in Rope: “able to suggest that Brandon and Philip are actually touching, holding, or leaning against one another, when they are only occupying parallel spatial planes’ 156. They are often “too close,” and their arguments and wrestlings involve hand-holding and visual tropes of the Hollywood embrace 156. Part of the suspense of the film, then, is the almost-painfully prolonged desire for the gay spectacle 157.

As the straight [male] viewer looks to see if the looks of the two men are too lingering, he himself becomes involved in a potentially homosexual gaze. “How might a desire to see what one is afraid to look at ever be gratified?” In the closet, Miller answers. We never see the body in the trunk – we are not forced to look in. (Isn’t it also interesting that the clue is the hat in the closet?) Of the 5 blackouts that do link rolls of film, 4 are of men’s backsides and one is of the trunk lid. “The blackouts come as proof positive that there is nothing to see, unless of course what is laid bare, through the imperfections of the joins, is the structure of the join itself, hence the very operation of the closet” 159.

But what is the gay sex the viewer anticipates? “The cavital darkness” of the anus, and “the cut,” both and one represented by the man’s backside, as Miller has it 160. One “hides the cut” because “it is imagined to be a penetrable hole in the celluloid film body,” but the anus is “hidden here as what remains and reminds of a cut” 160. The binarism of the male body fears castration because the anus reminds the man of the fear projected onto the vagina – the fear of being on the bottom 161. Straight men “need” gay men, Miller argues, to “imagine [themselves] covered front and back” 161. Hence Hitchcock’s relegation of the techniques to normality, rather than perversity. In fact, we see the cuts at Janet, Mrs. Wilson, and Rupert, we see them as blacked-out backsides with the “gay” characters: “Only to the extent that they are seen can the cuts at a man’s backside promote a heterosexualizing castration anxiety” 163.

The fifth and final blackout on the trunk, then, focuses on David’s body as somehow “obscene – and so to be kept offscreen” (literally, re: on/scene and obscene, Linda Williams says) 163. Perhaps the stiff has a stiff or has been abused, Miller suggests: “Far more disconcerting than the evidence of a penetrated anus or an erect penis is the prospect of their copresence on the same male body” 164.  The rope itself “now dangles and tautens like a penis and now encircles and tightens like a sphincter” 164. Ultimately, the film is both afraid of castration and its negation, Miller contends. Rupert’s last moment is to look behind him and sit down – to cover his ass, literally 164.

dir. Gerard Damiano, “Deep Throat”


Among the most successful feature-length pornographic films of all time, Gerard Damiano’s Deep Throat is the hour-long tale of Linda Lovelace (Linda Boreman) “as herself,” a sexually frustrated young woman who fails to achieve orgasm during sex. She feels “tingles all over,” but “no bells, no fireworks, no bomb going off.” The doctor who “cures” her does so by locating her clitoris in her throat, teaching her to suppress her gag reflex, and sending her on “physiotherapy” rounds to treat a variety of patients (potential suitors).

Linda Williams has argued that the film finds a way to thematize the “invisibility” of female sexuality and to show male and female orgasm at once. It is, however, problematically an endorsement of an act that physiologically real females do not find pleasurable, and in that sense, it’s not much better than “the money shot” to me. The film seems to know this, however – its extradiegetic musical score includes schmultzy tunes with literal lyrics written for the plot, as well as bizarre “bubble sounds” within the music when “normal” women experience orgasm. When Linda does, we get a rapid montage of – you guessed it – bells and bombs and fireworks.

This tension between literal and figurative visuality actually begins when Linda’s friend is receiving oral sex in the first scene of the film while smoking a cigarette; when she finishes, she flicks the white stub in a high arc across the room. In other scenes, she opens her mouth to signify orgasm, but the extradiegetic music gives her bubble sounds, not a voice in these moments (the joke of the bubbles is literalized later when the Dr. gives Linda a bottle of bubbles to blow in the office). Linda’s orgasm, on the other hand, is visually represented figuratively by the montage and (more) literally by the man’s orgasm, which she shares – it becomes hers by visual equanimity. Thus the film draws attention to psychological ideas of “lack” in women, but doesn’t altogether seem to “solve” them.

dir. Mike Nichols, “The Graduate”


Dustin Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock, a young college graduate who has just arrived home for the summer after completing his degree back East with accolades. He arrives in Pasadena to a dull series of parties and repeated conversations with his parents’ friends, all the while paralyzed about what to do with his life. He repeats his need to “just think – you know? Think!” to several other characters, but no one seems to hear him. The film begins its insistence on flattening gestures very early, denying the viewer any way in to the depth perception we normally seek (reminds me of The Master, 2012). Many such shots involve water and its silencing, suspending effects. In one shot, Ben is seated in front of a fishtank, as though his head were inside it. In another, he tries out the scuba gear his parents have given him as a gift, and the shot of him jumping into the water (all we can hear is his labored breathing through tubes) is devoid of the plunging sensation we expect (the getup would also be interesting in conversation with Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” – here the absurdity of entering a swimming pool that way). Ebert’s 1967 review claims “the film itself reacts” to the humorous moments, rather than the actors, and one of the wonderful things about this “flat” shooting style is how aware it makes us of the camera, of the very suture the film is performing (instead of an “over the shoulder” shot with Mrs. Robinson, a “through the leg” shot), which parallels the deadening visual landscape of American suburban life (think American Beauty, 1999).

Ben is soon “seduced” by Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father’s business partner, and they begin an affair that slows the pace of his life even further – to a tepid crawl. The montage of this affair is almost 2 songs in length, and begins with a long sequence of overhead shots of Hoffman floating in the pool or laying out on the diving board, shot from above to achieve the same effect of flatness. in both cases. He moves in and out of the Taft Hotel Room, even jumping out of the pool and straight into bed with Mrs. Robinson in one expertly done cut. Nichols also atomizes suburban space, focusing on the isolating, separate interiors of different rooms in hotels and houses by using different music for each. The repetitive, entrancing songs of Simon & Garfunkel are extradiegetic, whereas the sort of elevator music in each room that mildly titillates with an old-fashioned faux-sensuality are diegetic. These rhythms are echoed in the hotel room number, 568 – almost like a 5, 6, 7, 8 of a subdued 60s jazz group with all the radicalness sucked out of it (the affair is again tied to water through the initial interaction in the bar, portrayed as reflected in the shimmering glass of the coffee table).

The affair is so devoid of feeling that it actually makes the sex scenes fascinating to watch. The film, which Linda Williams mentions as one of the first popular films to exit the “long adolescence” of Hollywood movies and show that sex actually happened, deals with sex in such a frank, clinical way that the viewer hardly misses its explicitness – the absence of true scandal seems to come with the territory of this flat “love” affair. Ben and Mrs. Robinson (whom he never addresses any other way, emphasizing both her age and status as property of her husband) always have sex in the dark, and Ben’s attempts to make conversation with her fail repeatedly: “I don’t think we have much to say to each other,” she says. He finds out she majored in art after she says she isn’t interested in it, and he says, “I guess you kind of lost interest in it over the years.” “Kind of,” she says. The scene develops vital sympathy in us for Mrs. Robinson – we learn she married her husband because she was pregnant with Elaine and that they now sleep in separate bedrooms. It is also in this scene that they have a terrific fight over Ben taking Elaine out on a date sometime, in which Ben calls Mrs. Robinson “a broken down alcoholic” and refers to the affair as “the sickest, most perverted thing that’s ever happened to me.” They make up, but tenuously and with no further conversation.

When Mrs. Braddock confronts Ben about the affair, too, it is in a steamy bathroom, which eliminates the points of perspective in the background, leaving us with a confused image of Ben, his mother, and the mirror. When he cuts himself, it initiates a kind of transition in the film – a sharpness that dissipates some of the steam and will emerge fully when Ben’s parents ask him to take Elaine Robinson out on a date, despite her mother’s explicit instructions to Ben to the contrary. The date starts off badly, with a shades-wearing Ben dragging Elaine to a strip club, where what should be a cloying scene is somehow remarkably touching through the eyes of the anxious, overperforming Ben: as the stripper (who looks a lot like Elaine) wiggles her tassle-pastied breasts over Elaine’s head, a single tear slides down the girl’s cheek. Ben chases her out, kisses her, and the talk begins to flow over burgers at the drive-in. They spend most of the night out and begin to fall in love: “You’re the first thing in so long that I’ve liked, the first person I could stand to be with,” says Ben.

When Elaine discovers that Ben’s affair with a married woman is with her mother, she of course freaks out and Mrs. Robinson says a cool “goodbye” to him as he rushes from the Robinson house. With this rupture, however, comes a brief moment of depth and color, where we see Ben juxtaposed against the fish tank (but clearly behind it and off to the side) and then in an upstairs window looking down at the pool. These shots restore a sense of depth and perspective to the world we’ve seen Ben in. Ultimately, he announces to his parents that he’s getting married to Elaine, though “to be perfectly honest she doesn’t even like me,” and drives to Berkeley to find her.

In the next few scenes, Ben stalks Elaine, who eventually comes to his apartment to confront him about “raping” her mother. The casualness with which this term is used is striking and pretty funny. They begin seeing each other again and toying with the idea of marriage (clearly the only outcome they can imagine for their feelings given their mutual upbringing), but Elaine writes Ben a letter one day saying “it could never be” because of her father. Pretty soon the father awaits Ben in his room and confronts him, insisting that he must have something against him in order to go after his women. “We might just as well have been shaking hands,” Ben says of his affair with the mother, whereas he insists, “I love your daughter.”

The final few scenes are a drawn-out process of Ben driving from Berkeley to Pasadena to Berkeley to Santa Barbara to track down Elaine on her wedding day to Carl. Not only are all the musical overtures by Simon & Garfunkel, but the repeated use of “Scarborough Fair” for one direction of driving and “Mrs. Robinson” for the other wear out our senses and literally parallel Ben’s schizophrenic emotions (“she once was a true love of mine” vs. “Here’s to you Mrs. Robinson). He arrives at the church after the wedding kiss (“He’s too late!” snarls Mrs. Robinson), but as he bangs on the upstairs window (yet another exchange of point-of-view shots from each of their perspectives, emphasizing depth, rather than flatness), Elaine cries back “Ben!” and rushes to the door. In the funniest scene of the movie, Ben and Elaine fight off the congregation with a crucifix, which they also use to bar the doors and make an escape on a yellow schoolbus. “It’s too late!” Mrs. Robinson shouts at her daughter, slapping her. “Not for me!” responds Elaine. In the final sequence of the film, their elation gives way to a sort of affectless, individual, inward introspection of what they have done, and the final shot shows the bus from the back winding down the road with his head and her veil visible through the window. While there is no guarantee that their love will last, the affirming and relieving power of the end of the film lies in their decision to act and to choose, rather than to continue the script of what is expected, or, as Ben claimed of his affair, let it “happen to me” with no accounting for his own actions.

Frank O’Hara: Poems

Frank O’Hara (1926-1966) was of the New York School of poets, along with Schuyler, Koch, and Ashbery. Born in Baltimore, he moved to New York in 1951, where the city became for him “what the pastoral or rural worlds were for other writers, a source of refreshment and fantasy.” He explores the richness of locality, extinguishing the need for Old World symbols and charms and settling instead on the pleasures of the body. His poetry is notable for its insistence on joy and consumerism alongside loss and skepticism. In Lunch Poems, O’Hara explored the consumer’s midday break time as an innocent, rejuvenating participation in the city, including its capitalist delights. Unlike the nights of the Confessional poets, O’Hara’s poetry is distinctly a daytime voice. His campy humor (overperforming and neither affirming nor denying, but seeking a “3rd position”) is sometimes viewed as an important precursor to the work of poet laureate Billy Collins. He is also interesting to compare with Isherwood, especially A Single Man. O’Hara was killed in a beach-buggy accident on Fire Island at 41.


I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

Considers the medium of language via the medium of language, whereas the painting juxtaposes language and paint – a different project. The painting is concise and masks its inspiration because it needs to simplify; the poem is prolix and can never arrive at its topic.



It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in sawdust.
to Times Square, where the sign
blows smoke over my head, and higher
the waterfall pours lightly. A
Negro stands in a doorway with a
toothpick, languorously agitating.
A blonde chorus girl clicks: he
smiles and rubs his chin. Everything
suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of
a Thursday.
                Neon in daylight is a
great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would
write, as are light bulbs in daylight.
I stop for a cheeseburger at JULIET’S   
CORNER. Giulietta Masina, wife of
Federico Fellini, è bell’ attrice.
And chocolate malted. A lady in
foxes on such a day puts her poodle
in a cab.
             There are several Puerto
Ricans on the avenue today, which
makes it beautiful and warm. First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them?
And one has eaten and one walks,
past the magazines with nudes
and the posters for BULLFIGHT and
the Manhattan Storage Warehouse,
which they’ll soon tear down. I
used to think they had the Armory
Show there.
                A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.
This poem juxtaposes death and the quotidian details of everyday life, the personal (“I,” the timestamp, the particulars) and impersonality (“One,” life, etc.). It emphasizes the vitality of the dead, as well as a delicious joie de vivre, a comfort that Puerto Ricans in the street can create happiness and one can carry one’s heart in one’s pocket as a book of poems.


It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
                                           I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
Billie Holliday, the topic of the poem, is never mentioned. Rather, the poem explores how she lives and exists in collective memory, as well as in the atomized experience of the individual. The speaker obsessively timestamps the day and how he moves through it. At the end he feels a personal sadness and rage, remembering the night “everyone and I stopped breathing” at the sound of her voice – an ironic phrase that captures the suspense in terms of her actual death, but also maintains the personal/social dichotomy that characterizes so many of O’Hara’s poems.


Mothers of America
                                     let your kids go to the movies!
get them out of the house so they won’t know what you’re up to
it’s true that fresh air is good for the body
                                                                             but what about the soul
that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images
and when you grow old as grow old you must
                                                                            they won’t hate you
they won’t criticize you they won’t know
                                                                            they’ll be in some glamorous country
they first saw on a Saturday afternoon or playing hookey
they may even be grateful to you
                                                            for their first sexual experience
which only cost you a quarter
                                                       and didn’t upset the peaceful home
they will know where candy bars come from
                                                                                 and gratuitous bags of popcorn
as gratuitous as leaving the movie before it’s over
with a pleasant stranger whose apartment is in the Heaven on Earth Bldg
near the Williamsburg Bridge
                                                       oh mothers you will have made the little tykes
so happy because if nobody does pick them up in the movies
they won’t know the difference
                                                         and if somebody does it’ll be sheer gravy
and they’ll have been truly entertained either way
instead of hanging around the yard
                                                                 or up in their room
                                                                                                     hating you
prematurely since you won’t have done anything horribly mean yet
except keeping them from the darker joys
                                                                             it’s unforgivable the latter
so don’t blame me if you won’t take this advice
                                                                                      and the family breaks up
and your children grow old and blind in front of a TV set
movies you wouldn’t let them see when they were young
This poem is an ode to the movies, a lighthearted delight in the sex kids will find there that I’d like to contrast with Larkin’s darker, more depressing aesthetic in “High Windows,” which almost feels like a grungy attempted ripoff of O’Hara’s style. Also interesting to think about in terms of Vivian Sobchack and Linda Williams.


How funny you are today New York
like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime
and St. Bridget’s steeple leaning a little to the left

here I have just jumped out of a bed full of V-days
(I got tired of D-days) and blue you there still
accepts me foolish and free
all I want is a room up there
and you in it
and even the traffic halt so thick is a way
for people to rub up against each other
and when their surgical appliances lock
they stay together
for the rest of the day (what a day)
I go by to check a slide and I say
that painting’s not so blue

where’s Lana Turner
she’s out eating
and Garbo’s backstage at the Met
everyone’s taking their coat off
so they can show a rib-cage to the rib-watchers
and the park’s full of dancers with their tights and shoes
in little bags
who are often mistaken for worker-outers at the West Side Y
why not
the Pittsburgh Pirates shout because they won
and in a sense we’re all winning
we’re alive

the apartment was vacated by a gay couple
who moved to the country for fun
they moved a day too soon
even the stabbings are helping the population explosion
though in the wrong country
and all those liars have left the UN
the Seagram Building’s no longer rivalled in interest
not that we need liquor (we just like it)

and the little box is out on the sidewalk
next to the delicatessen
so the old man can sit on it and drink beer
and get knocked off it by his wife later in the day
while the sun is still shining

oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much

The rushed, passionate, run-on sense of the poem is explained by its ending, where the speaker has overconsumed on all the stuff of life. The montage of pop and politics, personal and social is a whirlwind tour of O’Hara’s stylistic devices.

Linda Williams: Chapters 6 & Conclusion, “Screening Sex”



Williams focuses on Blue Velvet and Brokeback Mountain as “primal scenes” in American cinema. “Lynch’s sex scenes are audacious, less for their explicitness than for the unsettling feelings they generate” 223. For young viewers in the 90s, Williams argues, Lynch’s film was a kind of parallel to the European avant-garde films she herself encountered ‘not exactly at the right time.’ She turns to Freud’s focus on the “primal fantasies” of “the child watching parental coitus… the child’s seduction by a parent (usually the son by the mother); and the scene of the threat of castration (usually… the son by the father)… as a kind of prehistoric ‘phylogenetic’ truth (the individual’s ontologenic memory of the species) that underlay psychic reality” 225. “The origin of desire is the enigma around which our Blue Velvet examples circle” 226. “Lynch’s multiple variations on the primal fantasies of the origin of sexuality are a tour de force of a new perverse sexual ritualism introduced into mainstream American cinema” 235 (think of American Psycho).

“Jameson identifies Blue Velvet’s violence and sadomasochism as the postmodern debasement of an earlier 1960s-style transgression… its postmodern play with an evil… that is merely a simulacrum and no longer really scary… a parable of the end of the sixties, ‘a parable of the end of theories of transgression as well, which so fascinated that whole period and its intellectuals.’ In a sense, Jameson is right… films that usher in violent originary fantasies in the late eighties are not politically transgressive in a 1960s, modernist way. But does that mean, as Jameson seems to say, that their sex is therefore pseudotransgressive in a postmodernist way that is historically inauthentic, unimportant, basically not sexy?… In place of Jameson’s dismissal of such films as mere symptoms of the loss of the sixties, we do better to take the primal scene seriously as the popular staging of a new kind of sex scene for a generation no longer aligned with the high-culture Marquis de Sade or with an idea of sexual liberation suited to the antirepressive ideologies of the 1960s. When Foucault writes that ‘modern society is perverse, not in spite of its Puritanism… in actual fact, and directly, perverse,’ he describes a general tedency to isolate, intensify, incite, consolidate, and implant ‘peripheral sexualities’… Sadomasochistic perversions and sexual fantasies that partake of originary fantasies of seduction, castration, and the primal scene begin to become ‘stuck’ in the eighties American popular culture through these films… a new understanding of sex as a desubjectified scene… the injunction to the audience in a film which… forbade a more direct look at sex” 236.

Turning to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, Williams states: “If sadomasochistic pleasures in American movies are now recognized as pleasures, however complicated they may be with pain, anal sex between men has previously been recognized, if at all, as only pain and humiliation, especially to the one penetrated” 237. The film became “something very much like a primal scene’s first witnessing of a sex act initially understood by the inexperienced child as pain and only later as pleasure” 237. Williams cites D.A. Miller’s complaint that the film focuses on scenes of spying by the women as “vitrified” by “views of ‘the Homosexual’ viewed by another character through glass” 238. Perhaps Miller would “prefer this ‘gay love story’ to come more overtly out of a self-recognized gay culture rather than at least partly out of Proulx’s heterosexual female imagination of sexual desires that do not, at their point of emergence, acknowledge themselves as gay” 238. Miller explicitly finds the film far less radical, for example, than European cinema. “I argue, to the contrary, that by staging a mythical primal scene in which homosexual desire emerges from something that does not preexist, and in also staging the threat of castration against which it emerges, that this Hollywood film precisely does not reduce homosexuality to a minoritized problem but makes it a fear, and a desire, sympathetically, and even melodramatically, felt by all” 238. It is, for Williams, about how Americans “paid attention to themselves watching it” 239. (Think of the melodramatic implications of Jack Twist dying because he is more “out,” while Ennis Del Mar lives in a closeted way.)

Williams turns to the 2003 Lawrence vs. Texas case (based on the Bowers v. Hardwick case of 1986), which asserted privacy as a right over the illegality of sodomy. It is interesting that the call of the wilderness in this American film parallels a call to sexuality (my idea: the space is normally free of women – adventure-land of homosociality, versus homosexuality) 242. Their initial seduction involves the masculine tropes of not looking, of not speaking, finally of wrestling and “facing off” that ends in Ennis’ violent taking charge – we hear more than we see of this union 246. In Proulx’s story and the film what Ennis “wants none of” is passivity – he makes himself the “male” in the act accordingly. Daniel Mendelsohn argues that the uniqueness of the film is to highlight the self-hatred in this barrier-crossing that does not occur in films that pose “familial or ethnic impediments” to sexual union 247. Castration figures literally here, not only in the internalized fears of homosexual killings and beatings, but in fact the act of castrating cattle. Proulx writes that Ennis’ shirt is “one inside the other, two in one” in Jack’s in the final trailer scene 249 (also an interesting parallel of the penetrative act). Unlike the fetish of blue velvet, however, these will not stimulate Ennis sexually: “We might call it a fetish that works in the service of melodrama to evoke the acute sense of loss… an avowal of love that is both too little and too late” 251. When Ennis switches the shirts, it acts as a sort of “outing” for Williams, serving as a juxtaposition of Jack embracing Ennis as he breaks down, versus a previously unseen tender scene of Ennis embracing Jack from behind 252.

While critic Daniel Mendelsohn found the marketing unseemly in its avoidance of publicizing the homosexuality in the film, producer James Shamus insisted “that the film is both a love story and a gay story, and that it solicits every audience member’s identification with the film’s central gay characters” 254 (think about Toni Morrison’s similar move?). “In their debate, Mendelsohn and Shamus occupy the two binary positions laid out by Eve Sedgwick’s influential study, The Epistemology of the Closet, the always inadequate either-or of a minoritizing gay desire particular to a specific group of actual homosexuals (Mendelsohn’s claim) and a universalizing view that sees homosexual desire in relation to that of other sexualities (Shamus’ claim)… Shamus’ claim… of ‘shattering the ‘epistemology of the closet”” 254. However, “the closet constitutes a place of deep contradiction not easily shattered,” so if the film is “about the epistemology of the closet, then it cannot be about a proud proclaiming of gay love, a definitive emergence from the closet into the bright light of day. If the film is the product of a postcloset world, it is looking back on an era of the closet… Ultimately, this movie’s depiction of the closet concerns some rather small rearrangements of what hangs inside… important… that it does not aim to show us a bold image of illicit desire, but instead the tension between desire and the fear that inhibits but also eroticizes it” 255. (Me: In other words, it inducts gay love into the same tradition of taboo that heterosexual love has celebrated?) “We do not know how gay desire suddenly becomes speakable or representable in a culture… Human sexuality… seems always to be caught between the too early and the too late occurrence of the event” 257.


Since porn is “now consigned to a space of supposed privacy and is not acknowledged as part of the cultural mainstream, it has become a kind of elephant in the room… treated as unofficial knowledge” 300. The private space of the home has become more public as it is connected to home viewing, the internet, etc. and “Conversely, what was once considered public (the movie theater) can now be brought into the home… a world of many small screens” that are mobile as well 300. Williams returns to Edison’s 1896 film, which received little attention “in the small peephole device of the Kinetoscope” but far more attention when projected on the big screen. If the big-screen movie depends on the “gulf” between viewer and screen necessary to take in the image, what of the small screen’s affordances? “Film-makers love to vilify the small screen experience… solitary, obsessed men become even more antisocial through their absorption into the small television screen” 303 (recall the argument that it is vaginal!). Williams considers how shows like SEx and the City & The L-Word have remade sex on the screen, focusing on TV’s soft-core sex is similar to coitus interruptus. The “hard-core” sex of Tell Me that You Love Me” is “new” – where would we place Girls?

“The onetime ‘vice’ of ‘onanism’ no longer carries the stigma of self-pollution that Thomas Laqueur tells us it quite suddenly acquired in the early eighteenth century… However, event he more recent rehabilitation of solitary sex has been an uneven process,” emphasizing masturbating women, not men 305. TV’s situation in the home invites masturbation, as does, perhaps, its more ‘life-size’ depictions 305. The fear that the internet “user” will replace cyberporn with real intimacy peaked in 1995 in a Time article depicting a man embracing (penetrating?) a glowing computer monitor, whose “lips” seem enormous (SURFACES). “Home screens have grown larger, movie theaters have grown smaller, and mobile screens and now touch screens of laptops, cell phones, and iPods complicate the whole issue by bringing the once private, small screen out into a public space that is simultaneously more privatized” 309 (think about TOUCH/TACT here!).

Williams turns to Sobchack, who “asserts that the only thing that holds identity together in this regime [of the digital] is the ongoing affirmation of our connections to these media themselves. In this flattened, superficial space lacking both temporal thickness and bodily investment, the dominant ‘techno-logic’ or the electronic leaves us diffused and disembodied” 310. However, Williams points out, “we become habituated to this screening and to our sympathetic relations to the sex of others as a kind of carnal knowledge felt in our own bodies. The techniques of cinema have led us to an embodied relation to movies that allows us to play with these moving images even while sitting immobile in our theater seats or holding an image on a mobile device in our laps. My irreducible bodily basis of experience has thus been conditioned by the technical dimension of movies. ‘Mixed reality’ is [Mark] Hansen’s term for the fact that there is no escape ‘into’ the virtual, no leaving the body behind, no complete going through the virtual window – only increased awareness of imaging, and of active relations to images, as an originary element of our organism’s very being” 311 (SURFACES).

Interestingly, in the cyberporn with Jenna Jameson that Williams explores, the Innocent/Nasty buttons seem to denote nothing more than the difference between descriptive (“That feels good”) and prescriptive (“Jam your fingers in”) – in other words, “just polite” and “just a woman who bluntly commands what she wants”) 317. This is free of the linear narrative of porn, but also of Sobchack’s “gravity” of “moral and physical… real-world consequences” 317. (Is this also bizarre in the extent to which it makes a woman purely manipulable, endlessly inexhausible?) Like other porn, it ends on a money shot (click ORG) with CGI’s impossible proportions 318. “It is tempting to agree with Baudrillard and all the other harbingers of the condition of the post-human that such a  patently fake sexual effect mixing real body and CGI cannot be good for real human sex” 320. It is at least true that phallic pleasures continue to dominate on/scene, but free amateur porn is changing this.

For Williams, Benjamin “is the scholar who has most eloquently articulated how closeness and reproducibility work against qualities of uniqueness and aura” 321. Going back to Schauer’s argument, which Williams defended film against, is it true of new media? Are they nothing more than sex aids encouraging mimicry? No, for Williams – the viewer and object are closer, but the divide never closes. “Utopian faith in the possibilities of virtual reality sometimes suggests that a break with the culture of the screen is imminent as once passive, immobile spectators become active and mobile… Whatever mimesis occurs in our bodies is never the kind of slavish imitation Schauer imagines. What we see in that same or other time and distant (but now closer) space may rebound back upon our own bodies in the more solipsistic and masturbatory way Sobchack describes, or it may, as Benjamin held out, offer an imaginative form of play that can lead us back into the world” 324. Williams ends by arguing that

“The publication of sex… has never been a making public of that which properly belongs to the private… Publicity is not necessarily the exposure of something that is more properly private…[it] is promiscuous, it exposes us to, it involves us with, others, even and perhaps especially others who are not physically present to us there with us in the same time and space. The carnal knowledge that we gain from screening sex is, finally, not a matter of seeing ‘it.’ … arriving at an ultimate degree… we cannot cure the dishonesty and bad faith about sex with more explicitness. And however much I would root for the sight of a few more convulsing clitorises to answer the seeming ubiquity of money shots, I do not really believe that more realistic depictions of female pleasure are the answer… the very act of screening has become an intimate part of our sexuality. The point, therefore, should not be to discover that screening sex brings us so much closer, spatially or temporally, to ‘real sex.’ Rather, it should be to discover that viewers, and now users, have become habituated to these new forms of mimetic play with, and through, screens… an opportunity to see and to know what has not previously been seen so closely. This carnal knowledge never fully reveals the scratch we imagine ‘it’ to be, but the itch that keeps us screening” 325.

I love this ending’s play on embodiment, the prolongation of the itch, the Foucauldian implications of proliferating discourse, the never-quite-arrival (comparable to affects like paranoia and the language arts), and also the idea that there is always something we haven’t seen (here’s where Girls & Mad Men seem particularly interesting – one for showing sex now that we haven’t seen, one for imposing – perhaps even problematically – on history a sexual intensity heretofore dissociated with our screened visions of the past.)

Linda Williams, Chapters 3, 4: Screening Sex



Pauline Kael compared the 1972 New York premiere of Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris to the riot-inspiring Parisian premiere of Stravinsky & Diaghilev’s The Rite of Spring nearly 60 years earlier, presumably to draw a parallel to its avant-gardism, its arrival as a form of high art: “a similar primitive eroticism” 113. “It was at least partly the Americanization, through the body and voice of Brando, of a sexuality once associated with European sophistication that made the film seem such an astounding event for Kael” 114. “Two of the most memorable of these sex acts are explorations of anal eroticism that illustrate Bataille’s sense of the links between ‘excreta, decay, and sexuality,’ as well as the importance of desires tinged with fear” 117. (The scene in which he trims her fingernails with scissors and she anally penetrates him would be an interesting comparison to Jeanne Dielman). “Only now, after the catharsis of confronting sex as death, does Paul attempt to connect with Jeanne beyond the womblike enclosure of the apartment. But now he is an ordinary middle-aged man with no special allure and Jeanne is hardly interested” 119. Kael differentiates this from exploitation films in claiming that the sex here is “emotionall charged” 119.

In contrast, Deep Throat, which became a household name, was not touted by its champion, reviewer Al Goldstein, as high art 121. “What Goldstein applauds… is a simplified and less emotionally threatening version of what Kael applauds… the spectacle of convulsive, phallic, heterosexual, but often nonnormative sez” 121. What Kael was interested in was that “powerful emotions of fear and violence, not mere prurience, animated the audience” 112. Williams lingers on the word prurient as implying “the morbid and shameful part of sexual urges that presumably also have a healthier and more natural side” 122. “The problem with prurience is thus twofold: its susceptibility to being identified as the shameful or morbid sexual practice of the deviant (someone else’s sexual practice, not my own) and the difficulty of isolating the ‘immediate stimulation – or turn-on – from the rest. Sex is rarely ever ‘just’ sex. Art film knows this, pornography tries not to. Inevitably, sex mixes with diverse emotions (shame, joy, triumph, relief, morbidity, love, etc.)” 124.

Williams claims that these films were important because sex was undeniable in them, they were highly popular, and they could “become sex aids” to viewers 125. “When we are in the grips of the physical excitement of sex, we achieve a kind of intimacy with our own and others’ bodies that, once past a certain threshold, allows us to relax what the historian and culture critic William Ian Miller calls the ‘rules of disgust'” 126. Norman Mailer’s critique of Last Tango as “a fuck film without the fucks” implied its simulated, rather than real, sex acts: “What was imagined was no less than a new kind of mainstream film in which explicit sex acts would be integrated into narrative films: not just to deliver the required number of graphic sex acts that would soon prove de rigueur in the new porn genre but to expand the representative power of the medium into aesthetically ambitious realms of the performance of sex… pornography as such would disappear” 128. Of course, this never happened.

“Cum shots, or money shots… are markedly unreal as depictions of the practices of mutual pleasure. When they become the conventional conclusion to all sex acts depicted in pornography, the withdrawal (whether from mouth, anus, or vagina) that makes the ejaculation visible necessitates a dislocating shift from the proximate, mutual pleasure of touch to the more distant pleasure of sight, as if the couple compromises their own pleasures of touch for our screening pleasure. The film asks us to believe that the participants in the sex act, especially the woman who makes so much of the sight of the ejaculating penis, prefers, at that moment, to become more like a film viewer marveling at what she sees than like a sexual actor caught up in what she feels. As climax, then, the money shot is awfully one-sided” 130.

In Deep Throat, Linda Lovelace is “an ordinary young woman with wholesome – not what would later become known as stereotypically pornographic – good looks. She is a typical product of the 1960s sexual revolution. She considers sexual pleasure important to her self-fulfillment, but has missed out so far. She confesses to feeling ‘little tingles’ when she has penetrative sex, but ‘no bells ringing, dams bursting, or bombs going off'” 131 (interesting to think about these figurations). As Williams argues, audiences laughed – the film was less about eros than about “teach[ing] the audience to relax its own automatic reflexes of disgust, much the way the good doctor would teach Linda to relax her gag reflexes in order to discover the pleasures of deep-throat fellatio” 132. “Vigorous deep-throat fellatio, in which the doctor presumably ‘hits’ the invisible ‘spot’ that precipitates Linda’s pleasure, leads to the highly visible spectacle of the money shot that would become the sine qua non of all hard-core pornography for decades to come” 133. Another joke of the film is that the metaphors she uses to describe her previously absent experiences of pleasure literalize on the screen as she experiences orgasm. (It also seems important to consider how this film not only services visibility and ‘women’s lib,’ but a fantasy that frees men from guilt by insisting that this is an act women find pleasurable… what would be the male heterosexual equivalent? How would this map onto homosexual acts?)

“It is hard to imagine a sex act with more initial shock value than fellatio when graphically seen on the big screen… dramatically bring[s] organs of smell, taste, and ingestion up against organs of elimination… a pretty face… positively worshipped the man’s bodily functions” 137. Though the doctor sees the clitoris in Linda’s throat, we never do, and its “remains occulted throughout the film and thus offers narrative justification for not having sex in the prescribed, procreative missionary position” 138. (Williams: think of Foucault on the ‘implantation of perversions’ to a particular age, place, or practice 138). “When Freud attempts to understand the pleasures of fellatio (nowhere does he tackle the pleasures of cunnilingus), he takes great pains to minimize the awareness of its perversion (in his terms) by referring it back to the innocence of the child sucking at the mother’s breast… linked to his own belief in the mother’s (and the breast’s) lack of sexual sensitivity in the act of nursing… he misconstrues its pleasures as one-way” 140 (also weird because heterosexual sex would give pleasure only to the male in Freud’s mind in both cases). The conceit of the film allows it to “compensate the woman who fellates witha putatively deeper, nonoral, clitorally orgasmic satisfaction” 141. This is the same era in which cunnilingus is relegated to a non-climaxing foreplay: when “the new graphic pornography failed to invest eros in that which it could not easily see” 141.

Screenings of hetero pornography did not necessarily result in onanism (decency about which ladies might be sitting next to you), but this was not true of homo pornography, where “to be seen watching a film in these theaters could often be interpreted as a sign of interest in having sex on the spot” 144. “All pornography is utopian; all pornography takes place, as Steven Marcus has said, in pornotopia, the land where it is ‘always bedtime.’ But it seems fair to say that all-male gay pornography is more utopian, if only because the taboos that must be overcome to stage its pleasures are greater” 150. “Always in danger of disappearing, the virile black man becomes all the more precious as the erotic fantasy of the white man. This means, of course, that the black man functions more as a sexual object than a sexual subject, more as what Franz Fenon has called an ‘epidermalized’ racial essence” in Boys in the Sand 153.



“Deep Throat had purported to be about female orgasm by rather disarmingly acknowledging a problem that had not been previously disclosed in the mainstream history of screening sex: where to locate and how to depict female pleasures that did not necessarily coincide with those of the male. The clitoris, which as we shall see below was newly exalted as the primary organ of female pleasure by the sexologists, whas not where it should be. ‘Why there you are! You little bugger you!’ proclaimed the good doctor in Deep Throat” 155.

Williams begins with the orgasm scene in the 1989 When Harry Met Sally as a great example of the ‘outing’ of the problem of women’s pleasure 156. The “make love, not war” message, which Williams points out was often politically empty, would make the body “an object of cathexis and a thing to be enjoyed – an instrument of pleasure” 157. As to the “Say Yes to Men Who Say No” to the war, Williams “was tempted to adopt it, too, before recognizing in it a whole patriarchal regime that wanted to make my sexual pleasure subservient to the only real political actor in the revolutionary scenario: the man” 158. How could sexuality be more than “getting laid,” become a more “politically correct form of making love for a woman”? Williams turns to Kinsey, who actually filmed orgasms in his home 159. “The gay media scholar Thomas Waugh argues… that Kinsey’s problem was that he did not admit to the prurience that inevitably informed his work… Sexual science… is inseparable from eroticism” 161. “In a mood of even greater insurgency, the feminist activist Anne Koedt proclaimed, in a famous pamphlet widely circulated at radical meetings long before it was published, that if vaginal penetration was not the cause of orgasm, then women had been ‘defined sexually in terms of what pleases men; our own biology has not been properly analyzed” 163.

Williams turns to Jane Fonda, highlighting in particular Barbarella and “Kinsey’s insight that sexual response does not look like happiness” in her examination of Fonda’s onscreen orgasms 169 (this would be interesting to compare with horror genres). She then turns to Hal Ashby’s 1978 Coming Home. “Luke informs Sally that he cannot feel when she touches him (down there), but he can see. Sight, in a solution that neatly coincides with the needs of an audience screening sex, thus partly substitutes for touch in a sex scene that has a legitimate excuse to leave the light on” 173. “However we construe the sex that Luke and Sally have, it is emphatically not that of active, phallic thrusting into a passive receptacle. On the other hand, we do not ever see what exactly Sally does to pleasure Luke besides offer herself up to be seen by him” 174. Fonda said she was interested in locating “a dramatic way to redefine manhood beyond the traditional, goal-oriented reliance on the phallus to a new shared intimacy and pleasure my character had never experienced with her husband” 175. “As feminist researcher Annie Potts demonstrates, the language of orgasm, even the more female-aware language of sexologists such as Masters and Johnson, tends to be organized as a teleology of excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution… a transcendence that brings one back more fully and completely to the self through a beginning, middle, and end that often still privileges phallocentric models of thrusting and getting there, with men typically getting there too soon and women too late” 176. “The hydraulic model of orgasm… can be complicated by another model of sexual excitations that seek nothing more than their own intensification… the pleasure of the itch: anticipation, prolongation, intensification” 177.

Linda Williams, Chapter 2: “Screening Sex”



Williams begins by describing sex in foreign films: Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1959) and Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women (1960) both “portrayed gang rapes of young virgins” 69. “To screen a dramatic simulation of (coerced) genital sex was a very different thing from reading about that, or any kind of sex, in a novel. The power of impression derived not only from the vividness of seeing real bodies in acts and positions that were still unspeakable in polite American society, but also from seeing them magnified several times over” 69-70. The images lost focus in Wiliams’ mind, “to suggest the girl’s own loss of consciousness, even an ultimate loss of self, at the still unseen moment of genital penetration,” though in reality, they remained clear, “penetrating the initial distance between the camera and the girl… simulat[ing] a kind of rape” 70. Williams attributes this melting to the shameful awareness of her own bodily response to the films at the time.

The “carnal knowledge” film offers, however, is not immediate – it “does not necessarily come as a unique identification with any one body on the screen, but as a series of mediated exchangeds between our bodies, what Vivian Sobchack calls ‘the film’s body,’ and the bodies on the screen” 75. “Images of bodies taking sensual pleasures in one another invoke both our more distant senses of sight and hearing and our more proximate senses of touch, taste, and smell” 75. Williams wants to focus as much on sound as sight to explore the way American movies began to toe the line between showing it all and still concealing “it” by being “visually reticent” 75, 78. For years, Hollywood cinema remained more comfortable speaking the language of sex than showing it – with words like vagina, orgy, and virgin 77. (Her examples include Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, & Carnal Knowledge).

In The Graduate, “instead of showing the quality and kind of sexual relations that Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson enjoy, the film thus chooses to extend and thematize the initial war between illumination and darkness… to concentrate on the before preparations and the after dressing and departures, never the during of sex” 80. In Christian Metz’s terms, this is “a bracket syntagma: ‘Brief scenes given as typical examples of a certain order of reality but without temporal sequence, often organized around a concept'” 80. (Versus Chantal Ackerman.) “It is precisely in these lyrical montages – montages in which music amps up and narrative slows down – that a palatable form of carnal knowledge first found its way into mainstream American film” 83. Music and sex become inextricably linked (“Hollywood’s new practice… would be to situate the spectacle of sex as an affectively controlled interlude distanced by the effect of editing and music” 84) and when music is removed to allow the sounds of sex to be heard, it is another definite shift in screening sex 83. (See also Midnight Cowboy, 1969, on male prostitution and threatened masculinity).

Williams goes on to describe exploitation films (“any low-budget movie with a topical bent aimed at social problems not treated in the mainstream”) and the development of sexploitation films (“homegrown soft-core American sex films… to exploit so-called adult situations, and, above all, to expose more female flesh than could be seen in a mainstream film”) 88-9. “Sexploitation producers were so terrified of resembling hard-core pornography – and they did constantly skirt prosecution for obscenity in their vulnerable position outside the Code – that they would frequently displace the energy of genital coupling into a more generalized orgasmic abandon of the whole female body… jiggling breasts… verge on the clinically hysterical” 91. Finally, blaxploitation films cropped up in response to the Code’s prohibition of miscegenation on screen: “Taboos of interracial sex grew out of an American history that has covertly permitted white men sexual access to black women and violently forbidden black and brown men access to white women… generated taboo sexual fantasies with an important purchase on the American sexual imagination” 92. For example, Sydney Poitier and the fame of other famous black actors “seemed to have been purchased at the very price of his sexuality” 92. “Blaxploitation – the overt exploitation of racialized sex and violence – would prove the next logical step… launched its initial cycle through the sexploitation of supervirile black male bodies” 93. “Sweetback primes our anticipation of the vestigially taboo act of interracial intercourse while playing peekaboo with the male organ that would enact it” 97. “While white critics tended to begrudgingly admire the crowd-pleasing fabulation of the black man’s revenge on ‘whitey,’ while simultaneously wincing at its crass overstatement, for once the more important critical commentary occurred within the black community,” including Huey Newton, who admired its radicalism 99. In response, Lerone Bennet Jr. wrote in Ebony that it in fact simply created a counter-stereotype to Uncle Tom. This is “the phobic stereotype of the black rapist who cannot control his slavering desire for white women and the counterphobic one of the kind, gentle, and asexual Uncle Tom” 101. “The less fiercely independent Blaxploitation films to follow the trail blazed by Sweetback would make a point of delivering something a little more like ‘the black tradition of spontaneous sexuality’… ‘the lushness, the beauty, and the incredible variety of black flesh'” 103.

“The final location for the depiction of carnal knowledge outside the mainstream of American film in the sixties is the avant-garde” 104. “A remarkable number of the films discussed in this chapter depict sex performed for audiences within the film narrative,” including a camera in Warhol’s 1968  Blue Movie 105.

“The temporal flow of this sex, although not without an occasional ellipses at the seemingly arbitrary end of each roll of film, differs radically in duration and explicitness from any other… If it were possible to have a degree zero of sex in movies, this is it. No edited montages, no superimpositions, no musical interludes attempt to stand in for the always elusive orgasmic moments of pleasure. Nor does the scene build to a dramatic climax of money shots. Yet Warhol does take his cue aesthetically from the blunt and often matter-of-fact older blue movies he so much admired. These films are often so haphazard in their orchestration of unfaked sex acts that they, too, neglect to offer dramatic climaxes and thus, screened today, often have an uncanny realism. As we saw him do with kisses, Warhol simply shows the act with an unblinking, unprobing, unprurient eye although without maximally visible close-ups… The real payoff of his film turns out to be the postcoital and emphatically domestic intimacy…” 110

The chapter ends with the wonderful observation that Benjamin nearly eludes Mrs. Robinson’s advances in The Graduate with the question, “Would you like to go to the movies?” 110.