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.”
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.
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
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
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
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.