Betty Friedan, “The Feminine Mystique”

1963

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.

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David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram”

1995

Fiction writers like to watch, not be watched. TV is an expedient way of doing this. TV is the medicine-poison by which we watch people trained to take the pressure of millions of gazers. Even those of us who hate it – “graduate school poets” – seem to need to watch it with “weary irony” rather than “rapt credulity.”  TV has stopped pointing outside itself and become “otiose”: “A dog, if you point at something, will only look at your finger.” The metafiction of the sixties came out of readerly taste, and TV just caught on later.

Self-conscious irony is where TV and fiction meet. TV undercuts sight with what’s being said, rather than presenting 2 conflicting images or sayings. Television is low because people have more in common in their low taste than their refined taste. TV can be addictive though, since it can cause problems but “offers itself as relief” for those problems. We are so trained to enjoy trite TV that we discourage variation.

Postmodernism deployed materiality and brand names differently than modernism’s “dirty realism” (Joyce). Mimesis is achieved through these objects, though older writers don’t agree or see it this way. He names Nabokov as the key shift in metafiction, Pynchon as its best example, and DeLillo as its prophet (Murray and the photographed barn he can’t get outside the problem of).

Postmodern fiction is now trying to transfigure a televisual world just as that world is invulnerable to assault. In a genre he names “hyperreal” or “image-fiction,” Wallace argues authors attempt to play out a response to TV culture in their work, rather than just its representation. If realism made the strange familiar, we now need the familiar to be made strange [hysterical realism].

Wallace says, however, that image-fiction is almost always too “surfacey” a jeer at the very surfaces it critiques. TV has robbed ironists of the ability to use irony against it. US pop culture and US serious culture have always engaged the tension of the strong individual and the warm community. Earlier TV was about community, but the individual began to win out in the 80s. TV has become a medium that not only sells us separate commodities but teaches us how to look [Raymond Williams]. Commercials and shows are made to look more alike so the former are seen less as interruption [Mad Men].

TV no longer seeks our rapt attention, but flatters us for being bored by it. TV and postmodern fiction “share roots” that go both ways, Wallace insists. TV was “a hypocritical apologist” for a lost set of values in the 60s – it invited ironic readings. But irony is impossible to pin down, so how do we rebel against “TV’s aesthetic of rebellion?” We could become reactionaries against TV, or we could separate networks and viewers from the problems of the medium. He problematizes this by describing the utopian possibilities of the internet, which are imminent. If in Pynchon and DeLillo the gloom is that the pattern does not inhere, will it be one of terrible efficiency now?

He points to Leyner’s My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist as the edge of fiction – it has swallowed not TV, but TV’s whole objective into itself. It challenges the reader to “prove you’re consumer enough” to “absorb me.” But its “ironic genuflection” to TV is just reabsorbed into TV itself. Maybe the new rebels will rebel against “ironic watching,” Wallace suggests [the New Sincerity]. Would this be “too sincere?”

 

Jennifer Hayward, “Consuming Pleasures”

2009

Jennifer Hayward’s treatise on “active audiences” and serial fictions moves from Dickens to melodrama to soap operas in its scope. Hayward highlights the “low” quality of her texts: “Again we see the serial audience equated both with femininity and immaturity, and the texts themselves with pernicious social influences” 7. Yet she urges against using the master’s tools to undo the master’s house [is this really what hooks meant by that phrase?] – that is, she cautions against arguing for the uniqueness or exceptional value of some of these texts above others. Instead, she wants to consider them as potentially collaborative spaces that incorporate many characters and marginalized figures [Woloch]. “It is time to stop mourning a lost authenticity and start acknowledging – and working to increase – the real power that audiences can have over mass culture” 20. (I would like to compare this to Lauren Berlant’s use of Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” in The Female Complaint).

Hayward’s emphasis on the self-effacing nature of the serial is clear – Dickens, comic strips, and soap operas are not meant for preservation. (I will have to argue differently for postmodern novels and serial TV.) She flirts with the double-edged sword of gender essentialism in this chapter: “Critics such as Tania Modleski and Robert C. Allen have seen soaps’ decentered narratives and refusal of closure as reflecting essential differences between male and female ways of knowing and experience of temporality… obstacles between desire and fulfillment” 141. However, “the trope of refusal of closure reflects the material conditions of generic development” in the soap, and we should stop before we diachronically represent all female production in a certain vein 141. What she focuses on is the fact that most soaps are still focused on women and written by women, and that women still collaboratively read, write, and respond to them 143. She concludes:

“Serial producers and consumers actively appropriate what has long been perceived as a junk genre and recycle it, transforming it to satisfy audience desire for a collaborative narrative experience. Because of their continued accountability to consumers, inscribing responsiveness to audiences within the production process, serials may offer cultural models for material transformation, models that come not from the directives of academic critics, not from marginal pockets of cultural resistance, but from within mass culture itself as a result of the influence of fans’ voices over time… a past that allows a viable future” 196.

 

dir. Ridley Scott, “Blade Runner”

1982

Ridley Scott’s futuristic post-human adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is set in 2019 in Los Angeles. Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a “blade runner,” an assasin who is neither exactly vigilante nor part of the legal institutional framework, hired to kill “replicants” who have tried to return to Earth to live from the planet where they are slaves. As he falls in love with Rachel and tries to teach (program?) her about love even though he is supposed to kill her, the film leads us to question whether Deck himself, like Rachel, Pris, Zora, and Roy, is himself a replicant. The mixture of film noir and 1980s corporate culture with an imagined ‘future’ another 40 years hence (now almost the present!) suggests a concern not so much with the traditional noir anxiety about gender (though that is present as well), but humanity itself.

The “simulation city” of Scott’s imagination also has the dark, steamy fog and cramping light and space effects of film noir, where Rachel plays Joan Crawford to Dex’s Humphrey Bogart. It is carceral, hierarchized, and Foucauldian in its ‘futurism’ (not only in its surveillance, but in the brief lifespans of the “lower class” of replicants, which reminds me of what Foucault says about the bourgeois “cult of life” and trying to live forever). While the machines breathe and flicker like humans, naturalized, the humans are mechanical, robotic, unrecognizable in their humanity. The presentation of space renders the horizontality of LA as verticality, but often flatly – the opening scenes present the buildings as cutouts against the smog, the flying craft move in gridlike patterns (think of Deleuze & Guattari’s “striated space”), and the advertisements playing on the sides of high-rises are like the opening credits of Mad Men – massive plays on surface and the Jamesonian sublime (many of the products are real, too – like Coke). This LA has illegible foods and surfaces, saturated as it is with a melange of “Asian” cultures – bicycles, noodles, and characters from numerous Oriental languages.

The film engages intertextually with a wide range of other materials. As a reworking of Shelley’s Frankenstein, it at least materializes women (which that novel does not – Dr. Frankenstein throws the component female parts into the sea in a trunk). But it parallels the classic novel in presenting the rejected spawn of the scientist’s mind as “human” – returning in this case to beg for more life. His queer, campy brand of aestheticized violence and superhuman capabilities remind me of Omar in David Simon’s TV series The Wire, and like the gay murderer of Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo, Scott provides another model for homosexual masculinity than effeteness. Many of the female characters are strikingly robotic and, in Pris’ case (Daryl Hannah as a sex slave), unintelligent, suggesting that men have “programmed” them that way, both literally and metaphorically. Like Pynchon’s Pierce Inverarity, who lives on “as a paranoia,” Tyrell’s death fails even to dent the monolith of social change is corporation has wrought.

It would be interesting to think about how the original ending of the film – with the unicorn sequence revealing Deck as a replicant and the fantasy of “driving away” into the country would act in conversation with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, an urban tale focused on the many nodes of city space, as well as its resistant fringes (the underbelly of the city, too). This “resolved” ending is more 50s, or 80s-conservativist, and the more ambiguous end of the origami unicorn and uncertain escape seem more 40s, or noir, in tone.

The film interests me in terms of surfaces in a number of ways. First, it challenges the status and even the value of memory as a source of depth, as it was in many modernist works. Like the “unicorn sequence” that suggests Deckard’s “memory” is false as well, all the replicants are “implanted” with memories from a computer database, which they believe to be their own, but which are fabrications. Deckard’s name also has the ring of Descartes, or “deck-of-cards” – you might connect this to the crisis of the cogito, ergo sum in the film or to Eliot’s The Waste Land and the shuffling of pieces in and out of persona. Pris and Roy’s insistence on styling themselves is a sort of queer-empowered surface rendering of Foucault’s ideas about self-fashioning. Roy speaks largely in song lyrics, and the cheesy, melodramatic flight of the dove at his death makes him (his body) into a work of art in a paradoxically humanizing mode. The replicants also squat in an empty building like artists as well. Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go seems to have faith that art is redemptive, whereas that is a subject for contemplation and distress in Scott’s universe.

 

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.

“WHY I AM NOT A PAINTER,” 1957

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.

LUNCH POEMS, 1964

“A STEP AWAY FROM THEM”

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.
                                          On
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.

“THE DAY LADY DIED”

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.

“AVE MARIA”

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
                                                                                                        seeing
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.

“STEPS”

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.

Laura Mulvey, “Visual & Other Pleasures”

VISUAL PLEASURE & NARRATIVE CINEMA (1975, Screen)

“This paper intends to use psychoanalysis to discover where and how the fascination of film is reinforced by pre-existing patterns of fascination already at work within the individual subject and the social formations that have moulded him. It takes as its starting-point the way film reflects, reveals and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle… Psychoanalytic theory is thus appropriated here as a political weapon, demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form” 14.

(Interesting that Mulvey uses ‘fascinate’ twice – linked to witchcraft and enchantment, but also to the Greco-Roman ceremonial phallus, the fascinum.) Mulvey begins by pointing out the paradox of phallocentrism: that the man’s “presence” can only exist against the woman’s “lack”: woman is necessary to the construction of man 14. Maternal plenitude and phallic lack are the two forms “posited on nature (or on anatomy in Freud’s famous phrase). Woman’s desire is subjugated to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound; she can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it. She turns her child into the signifier of her own desire to possess a penis” 14.

“Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which an can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning” 15.

Mulvey argues “we can begin to make a break by examining patriarchy with the tools it provides, of which psychoanalysis is not the only but an important one” 15. With the advent of 16mm film, Mulvey argues, film has been opened up to artists beyond the capitalist Hollywood regime and its ideologically mimetic films 15. The “magic” of Hollywood cinema is in “its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure. Unchallenged, mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order… through its formal beauty and its play on [the subject’s] own formative obsessions” 16. Mulvey seeks “a total negation of the ease and plenitude of the narrative fiction film,” since “analysing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it” 16. The tradeoff is “a new language of desire” 16.

One of the pleasures of cinema is “scopophilia” – the pleasure of looking 16. Freud identifies it as a drive separate from the ‘proper’ erogenous zones: “he associated scopophilia with taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze… the voyeuristic activities of children… the primal scene” 16. The gaze is “essentially active” – its extreme is the voyeur or Peeping Tom (think Psycho & Peeping Tom, both 1960!) How can this be in film, where “what is seen on the screen is so manifestly shown”? 17.

“The mass of mainstream film, and the conventions within which it has consciously evolved, portray a hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic fantasy. Moreover the extreme contrast between the darkness in the auditorium (which also isolates the spectators from one another) and the brilliance of the shifting patterns of light and shade on the screen helps to promote the illusion of voyeuristic separation… an illusion of looking in on a private world… the position of the spectators in the cinema is blatantly one of repression of their exhibitionism and projection of the repressed desire onto the performer” 17.

Cinema actually “develops scopophilia,” however, it does not just satisfy it, partly by creating a world on screen that is anthropomorphic in its proportions and fixations 17. Lacan’s mirror stage hinges on the moment the child’s “physical ambitions outstrip their motor capacity… more complete, more perfect than they experience in their own body… thus overlaid with misrecognition… an ideal ego” that “prepares the way for identification with others in the future” and “predates language for the child” 17. The parallel for Mulvey between mirror and film screen lies mainly in the fact that “cinema has structures of fascination strong enough to allow temporary loss of ego while simultaneously reinforcing it… the sense of forgetting the world as the ego has come to perceive it… is nostalgically reminiscent of that pre-subjective moment of image recognition” 18.

Thus the cinema is involved in contradictory pleasure structures: one scopophilic (sexual stimulation by the sight of another), one narcissistic (identification with the image as mirror) 18. Instinctual drive and self-preservation are polarized forms of pleasure, but they both engage in “indifference to perceptual reality” 18. “The look, pleasureable in form, can be threatening in content, and it is woman as representation/image that crystallises this paradox” 19.

“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female… In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spctacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease, from Ziegfield to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, and plays to and signifies male desire” 19.

“Mainstream film neatly combines spectacle and narrative. (Note, however, how in the musical song-and-dance numbers interrupt the flow of the diegesis.) The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story-line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation” 19.

Woman is erotic object for both subjects: character and spectator, “with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen,” making the showgirl, in her exhibition to both, a perfect combination of those gazes (think of Foucault, “Las Meninas” 19. (Do we compete with characters for her?) “For a moment the sexual impact of the performing woman takes the film into a no man’s land outside its own time and space” 19-20 (think of Betty & Megan in Mad Men, or Some Like It Hot – where the men in drag actually drag the pace of the action – use ‘female’ performance as a delay mechanism!)

“Conventional close-ups of legs… or a face… integrate into the narrative a different mode of eroticism. One part of a fragmented body destroys the Renaissance space, the illusion of depth demanded by the narrative; it gives flatness, the quality of a cut-out or icon, rather than verisimilitude, to the screen” 20.

(FACETING!) “The male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like. Hence the split between spectacle and narrative supports the man’s role as the active one of advancing the story, making things happen… the bearer of the look of the spectator… transferring it behind the screen to neutralise the extradiegetic tendencies represented by woman as spectacle” 20. The centrality and activity of the male protagonist are a “screen surrogate” for the spectator, who feels omnipotent and in control of the filmic events – the male film star is the ideal ego (more in control than the spectator) and the female film star is the object of scopophilia (voyeured object of desire) 20. The narrative space of the male star is thus 3-dimensional, rather than flat (interesting to think about this as another reason for treating surface seriously – because women themselves are reduced to it – it is a tool of patriarchy that can unmake the house?)

The female star is usually presented alone, sexualized, and exhibited at the start of the film, but becomes the tamed property and possession of the protagonist over the course of the narrative (and therfore of the spectator as well) 21. The problem, however, is that

“ultimately, the meaning of woman is sexual difference, the visually ascertainable absence of the penis, the material evidence on which is based the castration complex essential for the organisation of entrance to the symbolic order and the law of the father. Thus the woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified. The male unconscious has two avenues of escape from this castration anxiety: preoccupation with the re-enactment of the original trauma (investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery), counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment or saving of the guilty object (an avenue typified by the concerns of the film noir); or else complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous (hence overvaluation, the cult of the female star” 21.

(This all seems pretty flawed to me, actually. Williams’ argument is stronger by far.) Fetishism is flatter than the sadism of scopophilia, which “demands a story,” either “punishment or forgiveness” – as in Hitchcock 22.  Mulvey emphasizes the flatness of Sternberg’s films (vs Hitchcock’s), focused on women as stylized products that merge with the screen, ultimate fetishes in cyclical, rather than linear, time, with plots focused on misunderstanding, rather than conflict, sans controlling male gaze. 22. “The high point of emotional drama in the most typical Dietrich films, her supreme moments of erotic meaning, take place in the absence of the man she loves in the fiction” 22. In Hitchcock,

“the power to subject another person to the will sadistically or to the gaze voyeuristically is turned onto the woman as the object of both… True perversion is barely concealed under a shallow mask of ideological correctness – the man is on the right side of the law, the woman on the wrong… liberal use of subjective camera from the point of view of the male protagonist draw the spectators deeply into his position, making them share his uneasy gaze. The spectator is absorbed into a voyeuristic situation within the screen scene and diegesis, which parodies his own in the cinema” 23.

Versus other visual forms, cinema uses the “shifting emphasis of the look… cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself… Playing on the tension between film as controlling the dimension of time (editing, narrative) and film as controlling the dimension of space (changes in distance, editing), cinematic codes create a gaze, a world and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire” 25.

“There are 3 different looks associated with the cinema: that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion. The conventions of narrative film deny the first two and subordinate them to the third, the conscious aim being always to eliminate intrusive camera presence and prevent a distancing awareness in the audience. Without these two absences… fictional drama cannot achieve reality, obviousness, and truth” 25.

“Nevertheless… the structure of looking in narrative fiction film contains a contradiction in its own premises: the female image as a castration threat constantly endangers the unity of the diegesis and bursts through the world of illusion as an intrusive, static, one-dimensional fetish. Thus the two looks materially present in time and space are obsessively subordinated to the neurotic needs of the male ego. The camera becomes the mechanism for producing an illusion of Renaissance space, flowing movements compatible with the human eye, an ideology of representation that revolves around the perception of the subject; the camera’s look is disavowal in order to create a convincing world in which the speaker’s surrogate can perform with verisimilitude’ 25-6.

“Simultaneously, the look of the audience is denied an intrinsic force: as soon as fetishistic representation of the female image threatens to break the spell of illusion, and the erotic image on the screen appears directly (without mediation) to the spectator, the fact of fetishisation, concealing as it does castration fear, freezes the look, fixates the spectator and prevents him from achieving any distance from the image in front of him” 26.

For Mulvey, this phenomenon is specific to film (a lot of it seems like baloney, as many critics have since pointed out). Mulvey calls for a freeing of the look of the camera (Vertov? Eisenstein?) and the freeing of the look of the audience “into dialectics and passionate detachment” 26. This destroys the pleasure of film, which for women should cause nothing more than “sentimental regret” 26.

AFTERTHOUGHTS (1989)

Mulvey returns to “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” to address the melodrama of the uncertain female sexual identity (making female stars central) and alternatives to the 3rd-person male spectator position (the liberation of the female spectator vis a vis the freedom of the male protagonist) 29. For Freud, children of both sexes pass through a phallic phase, though for girls it ends in the repression of the masculine 30. “Hollywood genre films structured around masculine pleasure, offering an identification with the active point of view, allow a woman spectator to rediscover that lost aspect of her sexual identity, the never fully repressed bedrock of feminine neurosis” 31. “As desire is a given cultural materiality in a text, for women (from childhood onwards) trans-sex identification is a habit that very easily becomes second nature. However, this Nature does not sit easily and shifts restlessly in its borrowed transvestite clothes” 33.

The marriage or not- marriage plot is the signifier of either social acceptance as it “sublimates the erotic into a final, closing, social ritual” 34 or “the rejection of marriage personifies a nostalgic celebration of phallic, narcissistic omnipotence” 33. For the female spectator, the Western is more than Oedipal nostalgia, more than the loss of a fantasy of omnipotence 37. For a woman to “drag” in masculinity is to refuse acceptance, even as she accepts a sort of vicarious agency 37.

NOTES ON SIRK & MELODRAMA (1989)

“It has been suggested that the interest of Hollywood 1950s melodrama lies primarily in the way that, by means of textual analysis, fissures and contradictions can be shown to be undermining the films’ ideological coherence,” which “seems to save the films from belonging blindly to the bourgeois ideology which produced them” 39. But “this argument depends on the premise that the project of this ideology is indeed to conjure up a coherent picture of a world and conceal contradictions which in turn conceal exploitation and oppression. A text which defies unity and closure would then quite clearly be progressive” 39.

This unfortunately creates a trap “quite characteristic of melodrama itself,” however 39. “Ideological contradiction is actually the overt mainspring and specific content of melodrama, not a hidden, unconscious thread to be picked up only by special critical processes” 39. The excitement of melodrama lies in sexual repression and frustration, in conflicts of love and blood, not those of enemies 39.

“Melodrama as a safety-valve for ideological contradictions centred on sex and the family may lose its progressive attributes, but it acquires a wider aesthetic and political significance. The workings of patriarchy, and the mould of feminine unconscious it produces, have left women largely without a voice, gagged and deprived of outlets (or a kind supplied, for instance, either by male art or popular culture) in spite of the crucial social and ideological functions women are called on to perform. In the absence of any coherent culture of oppression, a simple fact of recognition has aesthetic and political importance. There is a dizzy satisfaction in witnessing the way that sexual difference under patriarchy is fraught, explosive, and erupts dramatically into violence within its own private stomping-ground, the family” 39. (think of Berlant)

Melodramas like Sirk’s are thus “a corrective… probing the pent-up emotion” 39. As in Greek tragedy, where the overvaluation of patriarchy destroys social balance, the melodrama calls for the softening of sexual difference 40. “As Sirk has pointed out, the strength of the melodramatic form lies in the amount of dust the story raises along the road, the cloud of overdetermined irreconcilables which put up a resistance to being neatly settled, in the last five minutes, into a happy end… He turns the conventions of the melodrama sharply” – away from happy resolution 40.

“Discussions of the difference between melodrama and tragedy specify that while the tragic hero is conscious of his fate and torn between conflicting forces, characters caught in the world of melodrama are not allowed transcendent awareness or knowledge” 41.

“The formal devices of Hollywood melodrama… provide a transcendent, wordless commentary, giving abstract emotion spectacular form, contributing a narrative level that provides the action with a specific coherence. Mise en scene, rather than the undercutting of the actions and words of the story level, provides a central point of orientation for the spectator” 41.

“Sirk allows a certain interaction between the spectator’s reading of mise en scene, and its presence within the diegesis, as though the protagonists, from time to time, can read their dramatic situation with a code similar to that used by the audience. Although this device uses aesthetics as well as narrative to establish signs for characters ont he screen as for the spectator in the cinema, elements such as lighting or camera movement still act as a privileged discourse for the spectator” 41.

“Sirk ironises and complicates the theme of the continued sexuality of mothers” 43.

“Melodrama can be seen as having an ideological function in working certain contradictions through to the surface and re-presenting them in an aesthetic form… It is as though the fact of having a female point of view dominating the narrative produces an excess which precludes satisfaction. If the melodrama offers a fantasy escape for the identifying women in the audience, the illusion is so strongly marked by recognisable, real and familiar traps that escape is closer to a day-dream than to fairy story… a story of contradiction, not reconciliation” 43.