FILM THEORY & CRITICISM
Broken By The Past: The Role of Gender in Contemporary Gothic Cinema
The silhouette of a woman with unkempt hair flickers in an attic window sending a cautionary chill up an observer's spine. Something is out of place. Mental stability and social norms no longer feel as reliable as they should. This is the nature of the gothic nightmare. Madwomen, self-doubt, fear, guilt, looming houses, and an inescapable past are all characteristics of the gothic genre. The subgenre of the Female Gothic pushes the theme of madness even further and begins to unravel the very makeup of traditional gender roles. The thematic element of the mentally unstable maternal figure in the gothic is generally accompanied by a skeptical male oppressor. The manifestation of an anti-maternal figure can often result from this patriarchal doubt to create a seemingly real threat for the motherly character. These recurring characteristics appear in both classic gothic literature and contemporary cinema. When recent films such as A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) and Shutter Island (2010) are compared to a classic of the gothic genre, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," it becomes apparent that the gothic tradition continues to dismiss female anxiety and suffering until a breaking point is reached and the male oppressor is pulled into the feminine nightmare.
It is important to understand the conventions and themes commonly addressed in the Gothic genre to see how gender roles are used in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper." In his book, Gothic Fiction/Gothic Form, George Haggerty explains that, "space is always threatening and never comfortable in the Gothic novel...The space of the novel becomes a source of haunting in itself: Story lines are ruptured, fragmented, suppressed, misplaced, even forgotten. Time, too, either ticks with threatening deliberation or flies with destructive rapidity" (20). The Gothic is a genre of instability, both in time and space, but also of character. People are not who they initially appear to be. Michelle Masse explains female anxiety in relation to Marital Gothic, in her book, In the Name of Love: Women, Masochism, and the Gothic. She states, "the marriage that she thought would give her voice (because she would be listened to), movement (because her status would be that of an adult), and not just a room of her own but a house, proves to have none of these attributes" (Masse 20). The balance of powers in the Gothic marriage establishes the woman as a commodity to the overbearing husband. Masse elaborates on this by saying "the husband who will remold her, forever hold her, and whose loving clasp will be like a gate closing off all exit is a Gothic husband" (21). It is this dominating quality of patriarchal control that ultimately leads to its collapse.
The descent into madness and the transition of power from the overbearing male to the imaginary anti-mother is perfectly displayed in Gilman's story. The narrator establishes the relationship she has with her husband within the first page of the short story. She explains, "John is a physician, and perhaps—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)—perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster...If a physician of high standing, and one's own husband, assures...that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?" (Gilman 87). The narrator, having recently given birth, is separated from her role as mother until she is deemed mentally stable by her husband. This relationship sets the stage for the development of female gothic anxiety. Masse, looking at specific lines from the story, expands upon this by saying, "John 'hates to have me write a word,' but is willing to 'read to me till it tired my head' (13,21). Writing is seditiously independent and active, dutifully listening to John's voice is appropriately wifely and passive" (32). The patriarchal demand for passive femininity creates the conflict which entraps the maternal figure in a subordinate role; this demand separates the physical female form from her creative identity. The isolation from the self is echoed in the setting of the narrative.
The isolated domestic setting chosen for Gilman's narrator's recovery has a pronounced counter-effect that begins to unravel the protagonist's grasp on reality. Sam Bluefarb comments in his book, The Escape Motif in the American Novel, that, "though escape generally implies a flight from one reality to another, escapism has a wider cluster of associations. For escapism implies a flight from daily 'reality,' far less forgivable than literally running away from a society or situation" (5). The narrator's role as woman and mother is suppressed by her husband's demands for continual rest and the lack of stimulation causes the manifestation of a threatening and active form of femininity. Since physical escape is not a viable option, the narrator withdraws into a world in her mind. Masse comments that, "like so many heroines of the Gothic, the protagonist cannot alter the environment that traumatizes her. Her attempts to modify it by increasing her independence of voice and movement are fruitless. Instead, she recreates and relives her situation via the wallpaper, still holding to the letter of the law on what it means to be a good girl and a good wife" (35). The split between social expectation and personal unhappiness creates the need for escape and introduces the role of duality.
The oppressed female protagonist's invention of the threatening anti-maternal figure is a direct attack on the controlling patriarch and a way to redistribute power within the male-female relationship. Masse states that, "the heroines of the Gothic, inculcated by education, religion, and bourgeois familial values, have the same expectations as those around them for what is normal. Their social contract tenders their passivity and disavowal of public power in exchange for the love that will let them reign in the interpersonal and domestic sphere" (18). When the docile, fragile form of femininity final cracks, what the oppressive male is faced with is an uncontrollable, irrational madwoman. The anti-maternal figure is often aggressive, capable of violence, unconcerned with social and gender norms, cold, sexualized but infertile, and has a distinct voice of her own. She is everything that the passive motherly character is not and is consequently able to demand what the protagonist cannot. Since she is a manifestation, the self-conflict created works as a deconstruction of passive and ineffective femininity. This behavioral change is unfamiliar and frightening to the oppressive male, which destabalizes his power. On the nature of madness, Marta Caminero-Santangelo argues in her book, The Madwoman Can't Speak, by saying:
Madness is to be celebrated as a complete rupture with constraining traditions and stale conventions. [Women's narratives of madness] also mark a distance from the way antipsychiatric thought has been inherited by much recent feminist criticism, from the Gilbert and Gubar school, in which madwomen are subversive rebels expressing their rage, to the feminist version of labeling theory, in which madness is entirely explicable as a category imposed on women in punishment for unfeminine behaviors. (17)
Insanity is a term used to invalidate a person's credibility and social status, but to embrace madness allows marginalized characters to become unburdened by social etiquette and to live by rules of their own creation. The maternal figure is able to be both the passive, motherly wife and the sexual, aggressive, woman by creating the anti-maternal manifestation. The anti-mother is both threatening to the protagonist—due to the fact that she represents the destruction of an acceptable social identity—and appealing to her, because of the freedom she symbolizes. The instability the manifestation causes is best seen, however, in her effects on male dominance.
The loss of social order soon pulls the male oppressor in the maternal character's Gothic nightmare. The final lines of "The Yellow Wallpaper," illustrate the narrator's liberation but also her loss of self. She says, "I kept on creeping just the same, but I looked at him over my shoulder. 'I've got out at last,' said I, 'in spite of you and Jane. And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back!' Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!" (Gilman 102). The sudden appearance of the name "Jane," suggest that the formerly nameless narrator has become so far disassociated with herself that she is referring to herself from a third-person perspective. The power of the authoritative John is gone and he collapses in a feminine swoon. Jane, the good, passive wife has been replaced by the anti-maternal figure who is not afraid to step over her husband. This drastic change signals the destruction of the protagonist's and antagonist's social identities. The shadow woman, representative of untamed femininity, comes to power through madness. Masse explains that, "what finally does lay Gothic horror to rest is the refusal of masculinist authority as the only reality to which one can turn and return" (39). The distribution of power within the Gothic tale between the passive mother, the oppressive male and the imaginary embodiment of violent femininity creates a unique system of balance. The passive, maternal character is—whether in Gilman's 1893 story or in contemporary Gothic cinema of the new millennium—able to abstractly correct patriarchal dominance.
Appropriately, A Tale of Two Sisters opens with an elaborate wallpaper design in which the cast names appear and dissipate like smoke. Like "The Yellow Wallpaper," anxiety within the domestic sphere runs rampant. The tale echoes many of Gilman's themes and character traits but instills a unique perspective on the broken female psyche. Director Kim Jee-Woon expands upon the idea of the fractured female identity and minimizes the male presence in the film. The father is seen as cold and distant but cannot properly be defined as oppressive. This places the focus on trying to resolve conflict within the female self.
The role of duality is far more emphasized in A Tale of Two Sisters than in "The Yellow Wallpaper," and the anti-mother figure commands a much stronger physical presence. The film's teenage protagonist, Su-mi (Im Soo-jung), manifests the cruel step-mother persona to help address her own internal conflict. Eun-joo (Yeom Jeong-a), the step-mother, is a character who is introduced with strained politeness and slowly devolves into vicious violence. She is also removed from the direct title of mother and is falsely placed in a maternal role for children who are not her own. The artificiality of her role establishes her a mock-mother who is incapable of maternal duty, yet still wishes to be viewed by the father/husband as sexually desirable. Susan Wolstenholme writes in her book, Gothic (Re)Visions, that, "Freud suggests that a woman's sexuality, as the object of a man's gaze, is by its nature always a 'return,' always a reminder of his 'homely' origins. A woman's gaze and a woman's sex are both uncanny, terrifying; implicitly, they are also near equivalents, both suggest terrible power over men" (10). Since the film is viewed through Su-mi's perspective, the audience sees Eun-joo as a separate entity; however, when it is revealed that Su-mi simply acts the role of Eun-joo and the physical body of the step-mother does not exist, the viewer understands the father's discomfort of sleeping in the same bed as a his delusional daughter. The film does not suggest an incestuous relationship, yet the sexualized female gaze of Su-mi towards herself in the vanity mirror provide a subversion and perversion of the male gaze. Masse expands on this idea by stating "in traditional psychological readings, we nonetheless focus on the repressed desire of the heroine as the key that opens the text and reconstructs her character. Culturally prohibited from speaking of passion, unable to move toward the object of desire, the heroine remains the passive center of the novel and of the female adolescent's erotic dream" (10). The film expresses this idea quite overtly by presenting the delusional girl passively vying for the affection of her father. Her dream of creating a step-mother figure who provides a sexualized threat to the family unit cannot be realized because her gaze does not dictate the authority of the father's.
Through the gaze, the body, thusly, become part of the Gothic nightmare. Linda Badley explains in Writing Horror and the Body that, "the body is also, of course, gendered female through woman's designation as the sex, the flesh (versus Word), the wound that never heals. The body is particularly female in horror" (9). The film's narrative is based on female anxiety and fear though the use of blood. The viewer is informed that the three female characters represented in the story are menstruating at the same time. While the women are drastically different characters, they all share a common femaleness that ties them to the domestic nightmare. At one point, Su-mi finds a bloody package of rotten meat in the refrigerator. The symbolic connection made between a feminine role within the kitchen, established earlier by Eun-joo's extensive dinner preparations and designated duty to clean up afterwards, illustrate the decaying acceptance of subservient responsibilities. The step-mother, is aggressively leaving the docile, housewife role which is represented in the increased amount of blood and violence seen later in the film.
In addition to the manifestation of the forceful, vocal, and abusive step-mother, the fragmented female identity is also shown through Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young), Su-mi's younger, passive sister. Su-yeon acts as the innocent girl who is the target of the anti-mother's violent aggression. The manifestation of her character serves solely to give Su-mi a mental escape from past guilt. Gothic Feminism, by Diane Long Hoeveler, states, "the gothic feminist is a deeply conflicted subject who fends off the blows and manages to watch voyeuristically other women get punished for her own projected crimes" (14). By mentally resurrecting her sister and creating a threatening entity, Eun-joo, Su-mi hopes to resolve herself of personal regret by protecting Su-yeon from harm. Su-yeon clings to her caring older sister, who has taken on a true maternal role which stands in opposition to the step-mother persona. She becomes the maternal protagonist, even though she is not a mother. However, her ability to protect her sister is undermined by the severity of the past guilt and her maternal responsibility begins to deteriorate.
A Tale of Two Sisters is revealed to be a film not about patriarchal oppression but rather guilt and the self-conflict of the female identity. Su-mi embodies the gothic theme of the broken self. She is fragmented due to past traumas that influence her present. Alan Lloyd-Smith explains in his book, American Gothic Fiction, that, "Gothic interest in extreme states and actions can also be seen to correlate with widespread social anxieties and fears. Significant among theses are fears having to do with the suppressions of past traumas and guilt, anxieties concerning class and gender, fear of revolution, worries about the developing powers of science" (7). While not an example of widespread anxiety, the extreme states and actions of the film's narrative are the result of deep-seated pain and guilt. Su-mi's unknowing entrapment in the past can be seen in lines of dialog that were important in conversations preceding her traumatic loss. At one point, Su-mi venomously tells the Eun-joo manifestation that she may come to greatly regret her actions; this is in correlation to the girl's suspicion that her step-mother is physically abusing her sister. This same line of dialog is uttered by the real Eun-joo in a flashback to Su-mi, just as the girl angrily flees the presence of a woman she openly detests, instead of investigating a loud noise, which is revealed to be the fallen dresser that slowly smothered Su-yeon.
Her subconscious oppression of the event causes the guilt to resurface in the form of abstract recreations of the scenario. Eun-joo is manifested as a prideful aggressor purposely out to harm Su-yeon, thus allowing Su-mi a chance to save her dead sister from an imaginary threat. Initially, Su-mi is successful as her sister's protector but as the repressed truth refuses to remain buried, the violence enacted upon Su-yeon while Su-mi is away becomes more severe. What begins as verbal abuse, soon is represented through deep bruises on the young girl's wrists. Eun-joo then begins punishing Su-yeon by locking her in a dresser—significantly, the one that crushed the girl in reality—and finally by trapping her in a large laundry sack and brutally beating her. The violence acts as a reminder of the inevitable collapse of Su-mi's fantasy; she cannot resolve her guilt by denying reality. Her prison is not a physical one imposed by an oppressive system but is instead internal. Contemporary Gothic, by Catherine Spooner, comments that, "in Gothic texts, the past returns with sickening force: the dead rise from the grave or lay their cold hands upon the shoulders of the living. This fearful scenario is compounded by physical imprisonment: the...secret passages and attics riddling the ancestral mansions of the nineteenth century; the chambers of the human heart and brain in the twentieth-century writing" (18). Mental apparitions have returned to the grave only to die again so that the protagonist can understand her psychological entrapment.
For this reason, A Tale of Two Sisters is about liberation from self-imprisonment rather than the patriarchal commentary present in Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper." The role of men in the film is minimal, as the father is merely an emotionally distant character rather than a dominating force. The film is about the female resolution of her past and her role within the domestic sphere. Su-mi's guilt is most pronounced within the home, while the outdoors provides a temporary escape from the foreboding interior. While the father is marginalized, his passive presence acts to show his lack of control over the situation, which is both emasculating and humanizing. Unlike John, from "The Yellow Wallpaper," Su-mi's father, who is also a doctor, watches helplessly as his daughter attempts to exercise her emotional demons. His nightmare is not the result of losing patriarchal power over a woman, but instead of being forced to observe the collapse of his family. He does not attempt to dictate and diagnose Su-mi's condition but seeks outside consultation to better help his daughter. While he initially isolates Su-mi in the domestic sphere as a way to help her slowly acclimate back into the social world, her fabrication of reality makes it clear that she must be separated from the home environment. The father figure thusly becomes a way for Su-mi to escape her mental and domestic prison. He is not the typical male oppressor of the Female Gothic, which illustrates that the male threat of the narrative is replaced by the female threat to self-identity.
While A Tale of Two Sisters delves into the female perspective of Gothic horror, Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island approaches the issue from a different angle. The film focuses on the male perspective of female madness and how the male oppressor must then confront his own gothic nightmare as a result. The protagonist, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), recognizes at the end of the film that his relationship with his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), is not what he remembers. He is not the loving husband out to seek revenge for her suspected killer, and she was not the innocent and supportive housewife he mentally creates. The creation of these idealized images spawn from Dolores's psychological deterioration and the guilt Teddy feels for his passive role in her self-destruction. Shutter Island, uniquely starts the narrative after the female's descent into madness and shows the oppressive male's haunted psyche as he tries to find resolution for his internal conflict. Teddy's guilt comes from his lack of proactive intervention in his wife's increasing mental instability. His decision to ignore his wife's unusual remarks about having dark impulses caused by bugs in her brain establish him as the skeptical, oppressive male figure. By isolating his wife in the domestic sphere while he distracts himself with work and alcohol, the problem only festers until Dolores completely falls into madness and drowns her children in the lake behind their home. This marks the transition of her being the oppressed maternal figure to becoming the anti-mother who will haunt Teddy's memory until some resolution can be found for the protagonist.
Dolores, as the film's catalytic character, reflects multiple identities. Her role as mother, wife, and murderer disrupt the patriarchal control over the domestic. Her transformation in becoming the anti-mother destroys the family unit, both by the obvious drowning of her children but also by revoking gender characteristics. Her murderous act occurs outside of the home in the lake behind the house and is an active display of aggressive and violent behavior; this is in direct contrast to the passive and domesticated role of maternal figures. Given the film's 1950s setting, the relevance can be seen when Caminero-Santangelo states:
Postwar representation of female multiple personality seem to have participated at some level in the reconfiguration of women's roles through the depiction of contradictory selves which could not coexist in a healthy, "normal" woman...The image of divided or multiple woman, who could be several things at once, was used to suggest a potential threat to the precarious sense of social order, and to the traditional gender relations which provided a domestic haven from the atrocities of the war. (96)
Dolores's break from being the traditional housewife and mother change the domestic sphere into a warzone. Teddy, who witnessed the atrocity of war while participating in the liberation of Dachau, is marred but not devastated by the experience. As part of the masculine presence in the public world, experiencing war fit within normal male social responsibility. When that violence becomes present within the male sanctuary of the domestic, however, Teddy is mentally destroyed. His memories of the concentration camp mesh with images of the bodies of his children in a subconscious attempt to locate the trauma outside of the domestic and in the more socially conceivable locale of a deathcamp.
Like A Tale of Two Sisters, the role of guilt plays a major part of the film's narrative. From the violent moment in which Teddy kills his murderous wife, the conflicted conscious simultaneously seeks to confront and bury the traumatic experience. Teddy's creation of a false reality presents elements that connect to the actual development of his painful past but are fragmented to the point that they only provide incoherent glimpses of the originating trauma. The reality of Teddy shooting Dolores, as he cradles her soaking wet body after discovering the drowned bodies of his children, becomes the repressed memory. He blames his wife's death on an imaginary arsonist, believing his wife perished in a blaze that engulfed their apartment building. A fevered dream illustrates Teddy embracing his wife in their apartment followed by a subtle transition to them standing by a window which reveals a lake. Dolores's dress suddenly is noticeably wet and blood flows from a concealed wound while her body transforms into smoldering ash. The blending of memories, both the watery truth and the fiery lies, expose Teddy's subconscious process of addressing reality while still burying it under misplaced blame. His manifestation of a fictitious personal history is used to remove blame and guilt from himself and to place it upon a system or villainous individual that he can aggressively attack. Unlike A Tale of Two Sisters, this approach provides a psychological distraction that attempts to lead the protagonist further into delusion rather than abstractly confront the demons of guilt. The narrative illustrates how Teddy is working against himself by looking to blame an illogical government conspiracy about manipulative mind alterations instead of questioning his self-serving perspective.
For this reason, the mental institution provides external assistance in forcing Teddy to confront the truth. His psychological manifestations of arsonist, Andrew Laeddis (Elias Koteas), and the misleading apparition of Dolores prove to be counterproductive in exposing his repressed memories. The institution, thus, intervenes by creating an artificial anti-mother character. The fabrication of an escaped patient for Teddy to investigate, a woman who supposedly drowned her children, becomes a vehicle in which the past can be presented. The fact that resolution is promoted by an outside institution creates a bond between maleness and society. While Dolores was confined to the domestic without proper attention, greater resources are expended to a man of former authority trapped in a psychological gothic nightmare. The difference in treatment of madness within the same family provides a subtle commentary on gender equality. Teddy's role as a public male aligns him with services provided by society; his personal history as a US Marshal places him outside of the domestic and as a result, when his family life implodes, public resources attempt to treat him. In contrast, Dolores is ignored by a male dominated society and she is isolated in private until a self-destructive breaking point becomes inevitable.
While the system seems to favor male madness, both sexes ultimately reach the same fatalistic ending. Teddy's realization of the truth is dismissed with a final hypothetical question: "which would be worse, to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?" (Shutter Island). While his past guilt is finally exhumed and he is able to clearly look at the reason for his plagued conscience, he chooses to forget by opting for a lobotomy, an act that allows him to mentally "die" under the guise of his delusional pursuit for justice. While Teddy is in a sane frame of mind and only imitates his former insanity, this decision echoes Dolores's act of self-destruction. When pushed to a breaking point in which violence ensues, in this film, self-forgiveness is unobtainable regardless of sex. The film provides a tragic presentation of gender equality in which both the masculine and the feminine are both unable to overcome domestic fear and anxiety. Self-destruction through madness becomes the great equalizer.
The gothic genre's use of thematic conventions and character types have maintained social relevance from classic literary examples from 19th and early 20th century to cinematic representations of the new millennium. While the social commentary on gender equality has become less pronounced, the message is still there; it has just become buried under the surface like the repressed history that so many gothic protagonists try to escape. The collapse of the patriarchy by means of female anxiety and mental instability illustrates the unsustainable nature of gender oppression through male dominance. Within the genre, the oppressive or dismissive man is soon striped of his authority and pulled into the gothic nightmare despite the patriarchal system that aided in his ascension to power. Modern examples focus upon the significance of personal guilt within the domestic to establish gothic anxiety and perpetuate madness, but the individualistic trauma these characters seek to overcome are grounded in traditional motifs of the genre. The guilt proves to provide a vehicle in which the oppressed and repressed can use to redistribute power, even if the redistribution only achieves an equality in pain and suffering. Fathers can be rendered helpless and husbands can find themselves revoked of their former authority. The Gothic is a genre of deterioration; it's the slow decay of the self, of social norms, of rationality, and reliability. "The Yellow Wallpaper," A Tale of Two Sisters, and Shutter Island only act as a few open graves in this vast cemetery of Gothic social and gender commentary.
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- Hoeveler, Diane L. Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës. University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998. Print.
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- Shutter Island. Dir. Martin Scorsese . Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Michelle Williams, and Ben Kingsley. Paramount, 2010. Blu-ray.
- Spooner, Catherine. Contemporary Gothic. Focus on Contemporary Issues. London: Reaktion, 2006. Print.
- A Tale of Two Sisters. Dir. Kim Jee-Woon. Perf. Yeom Jeong-a, Im Soo-jung, and Moon Geun-young. Tartan Video, 2003. DVD.
- Wolstenholme, Susan. Gothic (re)visions: Writing Women As Readers. SUNY Series in Feminist Criticism and Theory. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993. Print.