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Film in American Popular CultureVisit the Film Archive
 BOUND AND GAGGED

When Otto Preminger successfully released The Moon Is Blue (1955) and The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) without the PCAs approval, the production code sustained its first major injury. During the 1960s, directors like Mike Nichols did further damage to the restrictive code, and in 1968 a more flexible ratings system replaced it.

While the code was losing its power, however, a new strategy of control was rising to take its place.

In Containment Culture: American Narratives, Postmodernism, and the Atomic Age, Alan Nadel states that the anxiety over nuclear weaponry in the 1950s precipitated a new restrictive strategy in American culture:

Very shortly after the bomb exploded upon American consciousness,…a national narrative developed to control the fear and responsibility endemic to possessing atomic power. The central motif of that narrative was “containment,” in which insecurity was absorbed by internal security.

This system of universal control divided the world into “two monolithic camps, one dedicated to promoting the inextricable combination of capitalism, democracy, and (Judeo-Christian) religion, and one seeking to destroy that ideological amalgamation by any means.” Any person in an American narrative who did not remain within the first camp’s ideological parameters threatened societal stability and had to be contained. This “containment” was a rhetorical strategy that “functioned to foreclose dissent, preempt dialogue, and preclude contradiction.” Thus the containment narrative was able to maintain a stable world, within the instability of the atomic age, by setting up a “mythic nuclear family as the universal container” of capitalist, democratic, and Judeo-Christian values.

Of course, Nadel was not the only historian to make this argument. Others like Elaine Tyler May in Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era similarly believed that 1950s America practiced the cult of domesticity as a form of social and political containment. Janet Thumin in Celluloid Sisters: Women and Popular Culture explains this dynamic as it relates to 1950s cinema:

There is an emphasis on pragmatism in the definitions of individual behavior proffered in these fifties films—the audience is invited to consider not so much the absolute propriety of individual’s actions, as in the forties group, as their effectivity in the wider project of building and maintaining the social cohesion necessary to the health of the nation.

For these films, any transgressions of Judeo-Christian values is problematic because it threatens the national health, and the dominant trope of stability is the gravitation toward the nuclear family. The Tender Trap (1955) provides a stellar example of this dynamic. Charlie Reader (Frank Sinatra), a New York theatrical agent, is a swinging playboy when he meets Julie (Debbie Reynolds). Julie desperately wants to marry Charlie. After he refuses to give up his lifestyle and marry her, she leaves him. Charlie, weakened by Julie, ends up engaged to Sylvia (Celeste Holm). Meanwhile, Charlie’s best friend, Joe (David Wayne), has come to New York to escape from an eleven year marriage in Indiana. When Julie comes back to Charlie, Sylvia bows out and Joe proposes. Sylvia says no, insisting she only reminds him of his wife. Her actions preserve Joe’s marriage, allow Julie and Charlie to marry, and keep her free for the man in the elevator. Thus the film resolves with three couples happily married. Joe’s straying ways are contained; Charlie’s playboy habits are contained; and the women are safely tucked away in the private sphere, the domestic space.

In the 1960s, Nadel states, these containment narratives (or tender traps) began to disintegrate into a “public discourse displaying many traits that would later be associated with postmodernism.” He notes that the containment strategy lost its power to “unify, codify, and contain—perhaps intimidate is the best word—the personal narratives of its population.”

Within Nadel’s thesis, however, we must make room for an exception: while containment narratives may have been dissipating in the culture at large, they did not dissipate in one discrete aspect of American film. In what follows, I will argue that screenwriters and directors continued to employ strategies of containment for women in the films of the 1960s and beyond. In particular, I will examine the deployment of those very devices on the transgressive female presence in film. These women are always punished for their transgression which eases the anxiety that their actions cause and preserves the cultural homeostasis.

The fact that women were still contained through narrative strategies into the 1960s can be no better illustrated than with a film like Psycho (1960).  In this film, Norman Bates’ (Anthony Perkins) anxiety over Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh) presence is so intense that it actually causes his personality to split--again. Norman becomes his mother who eliminates the threat to her son which is, of course, Marion. As we learn from the psychiatrist at film’s end, he, as Laura Mulvey phrased it in “When the Woman Looks,” “had been dominated by his demanding and clinging mother whom he eventually killed. Not able to bear the crime of matricide, he maintains the fiction that she lives by dressing in her clothes and speaking in her voice. Each time he feels sexual desire for a woman, the mother he has killed rises up in him to murder the cause of this betrayal of her son’s affections.” 

Marion exemplifies the transgressive woman from the very first moments of the film. After the establishing shot of Phoenix, Arizona, the camera moves in voyeuristically through a hotel room window. Slowly, it pans right, and we see her stretched out in a white bra and half slip. Her lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), stands beside the bed. “You didn’t eat your lunch,” he says. We gather that they were busy “not eating” during this particular lunch hour. She sits up; he sits down; they fall back on the bed.

Obviously, this relationship takes place outside of the traditional value system. Marion is not married to this man, yet she meets him at hotels and sleeps with him during her lunch hour.  Later in the film, Marion is again constructed as a sexual presence with criminal culpability, underscoring her need to be punished for not participating in the dominant value system. After she eats dinner, Norman peers at her through a hole in the office wall which opens into her hotel room. She undresses down to a black bra and half-slip this time. The change to black lingerie symbolizes her twofold sin: she engaged in sexual activity outside of the confines of marriage and she embezzled $40,000 from her boss. Of course, the implication is also that the kind of woman who would have sex outside of marriage is the kind of woman who would steal from her boss.

Before Norman even sees her in the black lingerie, we hear how upsetting a sensual young woman would be to Norman (as his mother). S/he screams:

No, I tell you, no, I will not have you bringing in strange young girls for supper, by candle light, I suppose, in the cheap erotic fashion of men with cheap erotic minds…and then what after supper…’Mother, she’s just a stranger,’ as if men didn’t desire strangers. Oh, I refuse to think of disgusting things because they disgust me. You understand boy? Go tell her she’ll not be easing her ugly appetite with my food or my son. Or do I have to tell her because you don’t have the guts?

Here, female sexuality is undesirable. Even candlelight dinners, a prelude to intimacy, become “cheaply erotic.” Norman (as himself) is also uncomfortable with Marion. When he brings her food to her hotel room, she steps back to let him enter her room. Norman steps forward then back. This indecisive move shows us he is ill-at-ease entering her room, her bedroom (which surely is a metaphor for entering her). He glances back toward the office and suggests they eat there. She agrees and follows him back into the parlor that, as Robin Wood points out in Hitchcock’s Films, is replete with paintings of classical rapes on the wall. The rape scenes show women being “punished” and also foreshadow the violence that will befall Marion. In addition, they illustrate scenes in which women are being disciplined, controlled.

After she finishes eating, she returns to her room and undresses while Norman peeps—as mentioned earlier. Norman then dons his mother’s personae and stabs her to death as she takes a shower. Norman/Mother is not content with stabbing her once or twice, however. He stabs her over and over again reifying the extreme anxiety her transgressive presence creates within society.  Might I also add that this hyperviolence serves to rein in any of the subversive impact of Marion’s earlier actions.

By sleeping with Sam and stealing the money, Marion breaks two societal taboos. Even though we know Marion plans to return the money and some argue that the shower metaphorically cleanses her guilt, she has already committed the sinful acts, she has acted independently, she has made up her own mind. This kind of woman is dangerous and unsettles the conventional morality. She must be contained.

Norman is also literally contained by film’s end—he is shut up in a psychiatric hospital. It is interesting to note here that it is the female presence within him that warrants this containment.

Although Bill Nichols in Ideology and the Image writes about The Birds, his comments below apply just as well to Psycho:

They [the narrative acts] propose a place for women in society that sustains ongoing social relationships, and, in our culture, sexism, among other things, that attends them. We ignore the surface of things and the bricoleur’s principles that fabricate this surface at our own peril, for it is here that the material fabric of ideology, if not its founding moment in the play of desire, is located.

The narrative action in Psycho sustains androcentric ideology as it reaffirms ongoing social relationships of power within society. The desire in this case is to capture and contain, bound and gag, the transgressive female spirit.

This dynamic can be easily traced through film after film. In The Graduate (1967) for example, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) engages in double transgression by assuming the masculine role in seducing Ben (Dustin Hoffman), a man far too young for her. Her domineering, aggressive behavior proves too much for him—he feels like a fish trapped in a tank or a diver trapped under water as Mike Nichols’ imagery shows us—so he leaves her for her daughter, Elaine (Katherine Ross). Elaine is much weaker, much more passive than her mother. When he takes her to a strip bar, she breaks down and cries, revealing her tender nature. Unlike her mother, Elaine promises not to be a threatening presence for Ben.

Thus we see that the transgressive Mrs. Robinson is punished in several ways: her lover abandons her; her lover leaves with her own daughter; Ben tells the daughter who in turn tells the husband of the affair thus destroying Mrs. Robinson’s family; Ben steals Elaine from her high profile fiancé at the wedding thus humiliating Mrs. Robinson even further. When Ben and Elaine ride away on the bus, they abandon Mrs. Robinson and her world of high balls and swirling cigarette smoke.  In other words, she has been thoroughly spanked.

As more and more women poured into the marketplace, as the revolt against the domesticity of the 1950s gained momentum, as the feminist movement grew stronger, as “the pill,” Hefner’s Playboy, Helen Gurly Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl, and Cosmopolitan encouraged women to experiment, societal anxieties concerning women increased. As the years passed, these anxieties did not lessen but increased, and film after film, decade after decade continued to “contain” the transgressive female presence.

Fortunately, in recent years there have been some females characters who act outside of societal prescriptives and get away with it. In my next piece, I will analyze one such representation of this revolution: the Wachowski brothers’ Bound.

April 2003

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