Why Silent Hill is Feminist Dark Comedy Disguised as Horror, By Guest Blogger Klingon Vanna White

Posted by The Bay Area Crew, June 2, 2015 07:37pm | Post a Comment

The Amoeblog welcomes guest blogger Klingon Vanna White, a self-proclaimed "Blingon" and outcast from the planet Kronos. To find out more about Klingon Vanna White, visit her website

What do Walking Dead’s Andrea, the Borg Queen, the antihero female navigator from Pitch Black, and the beloved beheaded dad from Game of Thrones, Ned Stark, all have in common? Did the title give it away like perchance, a spoiler? Well Silent Hill is from 2006; if you’re into horror, you’re adult-esque so don’t cry over spilled plot lines from a nine-year-old movie. Maybe you should watch it now. Maybe you’re the kind of person who would enjoy pointing out all my mistakes to justify your existence. I wrote this whole essay from memory. You’re welcome. Let’s get started.

In Silent Hill, pretty much every line is spoken by a female character. Never once do you feel like you’re being patronized in some Fried Green Tomatoes-Traveling Pants-50 Shades of Grey FOR THE LADIES movie kind of way (I haven’t seen any of these movies but I know I hate them). In fact, you don’t even notice it until weeks later and you’re all, OMFG that movie passed the Bechdel test like 500 times and I didn’t even know I was watching a lady movie the entire time!!!!

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Female Experimental Filmmakers: A Noncomprehensive A-Z

Posted by Eric Brightwell, March 18, 2015 12:27pm | Post a Comment


There are almost as many types of experimental films as there are experimental filmmakers. Many of them come to film from different directions than conventional filmmakers -- weaving together psychology, painting, dance, poetry, literature, theater, sculpture, and other fields. This being Women's History Month, I thought I'd have a crack at compiling a list of some of the names with which I'm familiar. If you have additions you'd like me to insert, let me know in the comments. 


Amy Greenfield was born 8 July, 1950 in Boston. She is an originator of the cine-dance genre, her namefor her artistic intersection of experimental film and dance. In addition to film she's created holographic moving sculptures, live multimedia pieces, poetry, and video installations.


Bady Minck was born in Ettelbruck, Luxembourg. She studied sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts and experimental film at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. Her debut, 1988's Der Mensch mit den modernen Nerven, was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989. Minck today divides her time between Luxembourg and Vienna.


Barbara Hammer's Dyketactics (1974) -- NSFW

Barbara Hammer was born 15 May 1939 in Los Angeles. She graduated from University of California at Los Angeles with a degree in psychology and later earned degrees in English literature and film at San Francisco State University. Today she is a professor at the European Graduate School in Saas-FeeSwitzerland.


Beth Billingsley studied art at the School of Visual Arts. She married sculptor Scott Billingsley and the two formed the filmmaking duo Scott B and Beth B who were seminal figures of the No Wave scene. Their first film was G-Man (1978). Beth Billingsley began making films outside Scott B and Beth B in 1987.


Betzy Bromberg studied film at California Institute of the Arts in the 1970s. She began making experimental films in 1976 and her early films included Petit Mal (1977) and Ciao Bella (1978). Today she serves as the Director of the Program in Film and Video at that same school.


Chiaki Watanabe's muX

Chiaki Watanabe (also known as CHIAKI) studied at School of Visual Arts. Today she divides her time between New York and Copenhagen.


Coleen Fitzgibbon's Land of Nod (1992/2013)

Coleen Fitzgibbon was born in 1950. She studied structuralist cinema at the Art Institute of Chicago and with the Whitney Independent Study Program. In 1976 she co-founded the collaborative X&Y with Robin Winters. In the late 1970s she was associated with New York's No Wave scene and today she divides her time between New York and Montana.


Dinorah de Jesus Rodriguez's Elixir (2004)

Dinorah de Jesus Rodriguez was born 28 April, 1957 in Placetas, Cuba. At the age of six she emigrated with her family to the US via Spain. She developed an interest in filmmaking whilst studying journalism at Boston University in 1975. In 1978 Rodriguez moved to California but today she lives in Miami.


Eileen Maxson was born 1980 in New York. Maxson received degrees from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Houston.


Elaine Summers's Tumble Dance (1965)

Lillian Elaine Summers was born 20 February 1925, in Perth, Australia. She grew up in Boston and first studied art education at the Massachusetts College of Art. She was a founding member of the group from which the Judson Dance Theater would coalesce. She died after a fall at her home at New York's Bellevue Hospital on 27 December, 2014.


G. B. Jones was born in Bowmanville, Ontario. Her synthpunk band, Bunny and the Lakers, released their only albumNumbers in 1979. She went on to co-found the post-punk band, Fifth Column. Jones also made experimental Super 8 mm films, often in collaboration with Bruce LaBruce.


Germaine Dulac's Étude cinégraphique sur une arabesque (1929)

Germaine Dulac was born Charlotte Elisabeth Germaine Saisset-Schneider on 17 November 1882, in Amiens, France. After initially working as a journalist she became interested in film through her friend, actress Stacia Napierkowska in 1914. Dulac and writer Irene Hillel-Erlanger then founded DH Films and produced a series of films from 1915-1920. Dulac died in Paris on 20 July 1942.


Jan Millsapps was born 26 February 1950 in Concord, North Carolina. She rose to prominence as an independent experimental animator and her film, Parthenogenesis, was awarded at the North Carolina Film Festival in 1976. She was a professor of cinema at San Francisco State University from 1987 and from 1991 to 1995 she served as chair of the cinema department at the school.


Janis Crystal Lipzin was born in 1945 in Colorado Springs. She studied painting and photography at Ohio University and New York University, and film at the San Francisco Art Institute. She made numerous Super 8 mm and 16 mm films begining in the mid-1970s. She directed the film/photo program at Antioch College and taught film and Interdisciplinary studies at the San Francisco Art Institute from 1978 to 2009. Here are a couple of links to excerpts of her films, De Luce 2- Architectura and Micro-Celluloid Incidents in 4 Santas.


Jeanne Liotta was born in 1960 in Brooklyn. She studied theater at New York University where she collaborated with Gargoyle Mechanique, The Living Theatre, and the Alchemical Theatre Company. From the 1985-1995 she collaborated on films and other artwork with Bradley Eros. In 1993 she founded the Firefly Cinema, which operated until 2010. She is also currently a professor of film studies at the University of Colorado Boulder and the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.


Joyce Wieland's Sailboat (1967)

Joyce Wieland was born 30 June 1931, in Toronto. She studied commercial art and graphic design at Toronto's Central Technical School and began making experimental films in the 1950s. In 1962, Wieland and her husband filmmaker Michael Snow moved to New York where they lived until 1970. She died from Alzheimer's disease on 27 June 1998.


Laura Mulvey was born 15 August, 1941. She was educated at St Hilda's College, Oxford. Mulvey arose as a prominent experimental filmmaker in the 1970s, co-writing and co-directing films with her husband, Peter Wollen. Today she is professor of film and media studies at Birkbeck, University of London.


Leah Gilliam was born in 1967 in Washington, DC. She studied modern culture and media at Brown University, film and twentieth century studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and interactive communication at New York University. She began making experimental films with 1992's Now Pretend.


Leslie Thornton was born in 1951 in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. She grew up in Cincinnati. She attended the State University of New York at Buffalo and later at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Thornton began as a painter in the early 1970s and began filmmaking with Face (1974). She currently a professor of modern culture and media at Brown University and divides her time between Providence and New York City.


Lynne Sachs was born 10 August, 1961 in Memphis, Tennessee. She attended Brown University where she majored in history and developed an interest in experimental documentary filmmaking. In 1985 she moved to San Francisco where she attended San Francisco State University and later the San Francisco Art Institute. In 1989 she made a long format experimental documentary, Sermons and Sacred Pictures. She currently teaches experimental film and video at New York University and lives in Brooklyn.


Mama Baer was born Andrea Katharina Ingeborg Gothling in 1981. She began as a post-industrial and noise musician in 1999 and began making experimental films in the 2000s. She currently lives in Flensburg, Germany where she often collaborates with her husband Kommissar Hjuler as "Kommissar Hjuler und Frau."


Marie Epstein (née Marie-Antonine Epstein) was born 14 August 1899 in Warsaw. She collaborated with her brother Jean Epstein, director Jean Benoit-Lévy, and later worked as a film preservationist at Cinémathèque francaise. She died 24 April 1995 in Paris.


Marie Menken's Lights (1964-1966)

Marie Menken (née Marie Menkevicius) was born 25 May 1909 in Brooklyn. She studied painting at the New York School of Fine and Industrial Arts and the Art Students League of New York. Menken and her husband Willard Maas co-founded the avant-garde Gryphon Group in the mid-1940s. She died 29 December 1970 in Brooklyn.


Marjorie Keller was born in 1950 in Yorktown, New York. She enrolled at Tufts University but transferred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She began making films in 1972 and earned a degree in cinema studies at New York University in 1975. She was working on a book on experimental female filmmakers at the time of her death in 1994.


Martha Colburn was born in 1972 and grew up in the country between Gettysburg and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In 1990 she enrolled at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. She began making films in 1994 and around the same time formed The Dramatics (not to be confused with the famous Motown group of the same name) who scored many of Colburn's films.


Mary Ellen Bute's Synchromy No. 4: Escape (1938)

Mary Ellen Bute
was born 21 November 1906 in Houston, Texas. She studied stage lighting at Yale University. Bute's her abstract animated films were widely screened in cinemas before features in from in the 1930s until 1953, and she categorized them as "visual music" and later named the Seeing Sound series. She died of heart failure at New York City's Cabrini Medical Center on 17 October 1983.


Mary Elizabeth Hallock-Greenewalt was born in 1871 in Beirut. She studied piano at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music and with Theodor Leschetizky in Vienna. Although best known as a pianist, she was also an inventor and pioneered visual music with an invention she called Nourathar which synchronized film to musical recordings and she hand-painted films films as well. She died in 1951.


Maya Deren was born Eleanora Derenkowskaia (Элеоно́ра Деренко́вская) on 29 April 1917 in Ukraine. In 1922, her family emigrated to Syracuse, New York, where her father shortened their family name to Deren. In 1930, Eleanora Deren enrolled at the League of Nations International School of Geneva. She graduated from New York University with a degree in literature. She adopted the surname Maya in 1943, after she moved to Los Angeles. Her experimental collaboration with Alexander Hammid, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), is one of the most influential avant-garde films in history. She died on 13 October 1961 from a brain hemorrhage brought on by extreme malnutrition.


Midi Onodera was born in Toronto. She began making experimental films in the late 1970s. In 1979 she made Untitled, Contemplation, and Reality-Illusion.


Nancy Laura Savoca was born 23 July 1959 in the Bronx. In 1980 she married to writer and producer Richard Guay. She graduated from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in 1982 where she made two shorts, Renata and Bad Timing.


Margaret "Peggy" Ahwesh was born 1954 in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. She earned a degree from Antioch College. She began her film career in 1983, with the Super 8 work Pittsburgh Trilogy. She began teaching film and electronic arts at Bard College in 1990.


Rebecca Horn's Berlin (1974)

Rebecca Horn was born 24 March 1944, in Michelstadt, Germany. In 1963 she enrolled at the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg but withdrew the following year after contracting lung poisoning. She currently divides her time between Berlin and Paris.


Sadaf Foroughi (صدف فروغی) was born 27 July 1976 in Tehran. She studied French literature and philosophy at the University of Provence in Aix-en-Provence, France. She began making film with 2004's Une Impression.


Sadie Benning was born 11 April 1973 in Milwaukee. She began experimenting with film as a child with a Fisher-Price Pixelvision PXL-2000 toy camera. In 1998, Benning co-founded Le Tigre with Kathleen Hanna and Johanna Fateman. Benning left the band in 2000.


Filmmaker and photographer Sharon Lockhart was born in 1964 in Norwood, Massachusetts. She received degrees from San Francisco Art institute and the Art Center College of Design. She is currently an associate professor at the University of Southern California's Roski School of Fine Arts, and lives in Los Angeles.


Shirley Clarke's Bridges-Go-Round (1958)

Shirley Clarke (née Shirley Brimberg) was born in New York City on 2 October 1919. She studied dance at Stephens College, Johns Hopkins University, Bennington College, and University of North Carolina. She began to show interest in filmmaking in the 1950s, completing Dance in the Sun in 1953. She died after a stroke in Boston on 23 September 1997.


Stephanie Barber was born in Riverhead, New York and grew up in Long Island. She studied film and poetry at Binghamton University. She is currently a resident artist in the multidisciplinary MFA program at Baltimore's Mt. Royal School of Interdisciplinary Art.


Su Friedrich was born 12 December 1954 in New Haven, Connecticut. She studied art and art history at Oberlin College. She made her first film, Hot Water, in 1978. Since 1998, has taught at the Center for the Creative and Performing Arts at Princeton University. Today she lives in Brooklyn.


Suzan Pitt produces experimental animated films. She was studying painting when began experimenting with 16mm film, creating Bowl, Theatre, Garden, Marble Game in 1970. She currently teaches with the experimental animation program at California Institute of the Arts.


Tracey Moffatt was born 12 November, 1960 in Brisbane, Australia. She graduated from the Queensland College of Art in 1982 when she filmed the documentary, Guniwaya Ngigu. She's primarily known for her photography, but has made several experimental films.


Trinh T. Minh-ha's Reassemblage (1983)

Trinh T. Minh-ha was born in Hanoi and raised in South Vietnam during the war. She studied piano and music composition at the National Conservatory of Music and Theater in Saigon before emigrating to the US in 1970. Her first 16mm film, Reassemblage, was filmed in Senegal and released in 1983.


Vaginal Davis was born in Los Angeles. Davis's band The Afro Sisters released their first seven-inch EP Indigo, Sassafras & Molasses, on Amoeba Records in 1978 and later opened for The Smiths and Happy Mondays on both of their first American tours. She began making experimental films with 1994's Designy Living. She currently lives in Berlin.


Vena Kava was born 2 November 1986, in Zakopane, Poland. When seven years old, her family emigrated to the US. Kava studied experimental filmmaking at Emerson College in Boston and later the San Francisco Art Institute. Kava currently lives in Montreal.


Vivian Ostrovsky was born 17 November 1945, in New York and spent most of her childhood in Rio de Janeiro. She studied psychology at Paris's Institut de Psychologie and later film at the Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle and by Henri Langlois and Eric Rohmer. In the 1970s, Ostrovsky and Rosine Grange co-founded Ciné-Femmes International.


Vivienne Dick was born 1950 in Donegal, Ireland. She attended school there before emigrating to the US in the 1970s where she became associated with the No Wave scene. In 1982 Dick moved back to Ireland and today she teaches filmmaking at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology.


Zeinabu irene Davis was born in Philadelphia and began making film at Brown University. She later received an MFA in motion picture/television production at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is also a professor of the Department of Communication at the University of California, San Diego.



Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement  (by B. Ruby Rich, 1998)
Women and Experimental Filmmaking (edited by Jean Petrolle and Virginia Wright Wexman, 2005)
Women's Experimental Cinema : Critical Frameworks (by Robin Blaetz, 2007)

If you're in Los Angeles, check out the Los Angeles Film Forum, the "longest-running organization in Southern California dedicated exclusively to the ongoing, non-commercial exhibition of independent, experimental, and progressive media art."

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All-Female Bands of the 1970s -- Happy Women's History Month!

Posted by Eric Brightwell, March 4, 2015 09:31pm | Post a Comment

I wrote a post on all-female bands from the 1910s-1950s, and a post covering all-female bands of the 1960s -- here's my attempt at a conclusive A-Z (and other alphabets) of all-female bands of the 1970s. Details are often sketchy or non-existent and as always corrections and contributions are appreciated!


Die Atztussis were an anarcho-punk band from the Kreuzberg section of West Berlin, active at least as early as 1979 when they played the Antifaschistischen Festival. The members were Cordula (vocals), Kiki (bass), Menusch (guitar), and Petra (drums).


'B' Girls in 1977 (image source: Rodney Bowes)

Cynthia Ross, Lucasta Rochas, Marcy Saddy, and Rhonda Ross formed 'B' Girls in Toronto in 1977. Although they recorded a handful of demos, they only released one single, "Fun At The Beach," on BOMP! in 1979. Roaches was replaced by Xenia Holiday before they broke up in 1981 or ’82. A collection of their recordings were released as Who Says Girls Can't Rock in 1997.



BeBe K’Roche were formed in Berkeley by Jake Lampert, Pamela "Tiik" Pollet, Peggy Mitchell, and Virginia Rubino in 1973. They released one single, “Hoodoo’d,” and an eponymous LP in 1976 on Los Angeles’s Olivia Records.


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His Mother's Voice: Only God Forgives' Feminism

Posted by Charles Reece, September 2, 2013 06:10am | Post a Comment

"In the beginning, in the uterine night, was the voice, that of the Mother." [p. 74]

That line is from Michel Chion, borrowed from Kaja Silverman's The Acoustic Mirror, since it could easily have served as the epigraph for the psychodynamic plot of Nicolas Refn's Only God Forgives. In Bangkok, Julian (Ryan Gosling), a man-child, is all seething impotency under matriarchal oppression (Crystal, played by Kristin Scott Thomas), yearning to be punished by patriarchal law (Chang, aka the Angel of Vengeance, played by Vithaya Pansringarm). Julian is without a father figure, since he murdered him at Crystal's insistence some time prior to the current story. Her maternal control is a smothering totality that's produced this one son who can't make any decision without mother's approval and his older brother, Billy, who proves his virile independence by brutalizing and killing adolescent prostitutes. The Oedipal theme could hardly be more explicit as she incestuously traces the muscles on Julian's arm or discusses with his dinner date how he has the smaller cock of the two brothers. After Billy is killed at Chang's insistence for the murder of a girl prostitute (the police commander actually makes the father of the girl do the deed), Crystal demands that her surviving son exact familial revenge, regardless of what Billy might've done. This seems to keep with Chion's description of the uterine voice of the mother as an "umbilical net," which he considers "a horrifying expression, since it evokes a cobweb."

Refn expresses this uterine trap through Lynchian styled oneiric cinematography: a voyeuristic camera follows Julian's imaginary wandering down sanguine hallways without an exit. It's not the male gaze that haunts his dreams, however, but his mother's. Despite being trapped in this seemingly endless tunnel, he also desires a reconnection with with the womb as he moves forward, reaching into the darkness. His hope of a maternal reconnection is cutoff when the dream image of Chang, the substitute father, performs symbolic castration with a sword that severs Julian's arm just below the elbow. This is, as Silverman might explain it, a Lacanian version of the Oedipal: the child yearns for an imaginary union with the mother, but the father says, "No," which introduces the kid into the symbolic register where laws, such as moral injunctions, operate. This original 'no' is the law of the father, a symbolic castration that "grounds" (interpretatively retrofits) all future symbolic behavior on a fundamental lack that has removed the child's feeling of being the center of everything -- i.e., that comforting blanket of squishy sonority that surrounded Julian in the womb, before he became old enough to realize what a repressive force his mother is. Thus, he has typical mommy issues, which are made more troubling by the fact that she's a treacherous drug-dealing crime lord.

By substituting the maternal voice for "the word" in John 1:1, Chion associates, as Silverman argues, the former with pure, formless sound while reinforcing the meaningful sound of words with the paternal (the absent father in this case). Although, in terms of origin story, unlike the Bible, he places the maternal voice prior to the paternal word, this hardly makes for a reconsideration of the importance of motherhood in shaping subjectivity, in placing the child into the symbolic order, since "this anteriority implies primitiveness rather than privilege." [p. 75] After the aforementioned dinner where his dick size is ridiculed, his date Mai, a prostitute he regularly hires as his only significant relationship (see Madonna-whore complex), asks why he lets Crystal talk to him like that. He answers, "because she's my mother." The sex Julian pays for doesn't involve ejaculation, only slight arousal by being tied down to a chair while he watches Mai. His only outlets from existential impotence comes in the form of rage: various violent acts and hysterically screaming at Mai the way he'd like to scream at his mother. As Silverman puts it: "Trapped within the suffocating confinement of the mother's voice, the newborn child resembles a prisoner or prey." [p. 75] And from there, predictably, a bunch of online articles decry the film as "misogynist." (How much longer before all countries follow Australia's lead in officially redefining this word as a two-bit synonym for 'sexism'?) But is it? Furthermore, is it even anti-feminist?

Contrary to the tendency in cinema criticized by Silverman where "the discursive potency of the male voice is established by stripping the female voice of all claim to verbal authority," [p. 77] the person doing most of the talking in this movie is Crystal. She controls and manipulates others through her words, by possessing a quicker wit and more commanding voice than all the men around her. Chang, the other pole of authority, is a man of few words. He doesn't have to verbally manipulate anyone since his position as police commander grants him all power he needs over others. When searching for who put a hit on him (i.e., Crystal), he isn't one for Sherlock Holmes' discursive method of deduction, instead preferring the brutal use of sharp metallic objects. Ethically, Crystal might be just as bad or worse, but she certainly fulfills Silverman's goal "to speak about a desire which challenges dominance from within representation and meaning, rather than from the place of a mutely resistant biology or sexual 'essence.'" [p. 124]  How else could she be the only verbally dominating character without being so within the supposedly patriarchal realm of the symbolic, where "representation and meaning" operate? 

Julian's situation isn't all that different from George Toles' take on Psycho's Norman Bates: "The law of the mother is the only law he has ever encountered or complied with." [p. 191] Norman killed his literal mother, but slipped into her skin by dressing like her and adopting her gaze to the degree that anything he does or sees is ultimately being controlled by this imaginary bodily reunion with her. "The tiniest assertion of a male prerogative to stare where he chooses is promptly checked [...] by the unappeasable Puritan matriarch built into his gaze." [p. 192] "Mother Bates" makes Norman feel guilty for looking at a "whore" through his peephole, whereas Crystal reduces Julian's prostitute girlfriend to a "cumbucket." It's the female gaze that follows him through those dreamy red halls. Maybe he requires being tied down while he watches sexual acts to prevent what happened to poor Marion Crane when Norman became aroused. Julian gets his chance to slip into his dead mother's skin, too, quite literally, when he slides his hand into the open wound Chang has sliced into her womb. When he goes to accept his punishment from Chang (limb removal, of course), it seems less like he's finally identified with the patriarchal voice than accepting responsibility for his family's crimes (unlike Norman who is last seen hiding behind the maternal voice). 

Downton Rapey?

Posted by Charles Reece, March 8, 2013 10:08am | Post a Comment

Lady Mary Crawley

The porn debate is underscored by two fundamentally antagonistic views of the purpose of law in society. 

The first view, to which pro-sex feminists subscribe, is that law should protect choice. "A woman's body, a woman's right" applies to every peaceful activity a woman chooses to engage in. The law should come into play only when a woman initiates force or has force initiated against her. The second view, to which both conservatives and anti-porn feminists subscribe, is that law should protect virtue. It should come into play whenever there has been a breach of public morality, or a breach of "women's class interests.
-- Wendy McElroy, "A Feminist Defense of Pornography"

I recently watched the French documentary Mutantes: Punk Porn Feminism, which contains interviews with women who participate in and/or support what you'd think based on the title. One of the main points Virginie Despentes makes with her film is that much of the antagonism the sex trade continues to face is rooted in an old fashioned patriarchal control of women's bodies. It's as if the entire familial tradition would crumble if women were allowed to do with their bodies what they want, giving sex away for free or for cash. This same notion can be seen in pop culture in the way rape tends to be seen as the worst thing that one can do to a fictional female victim, not murder. The contamination of a woman's body, the violation of her "virtue" is too evil to face, rather just kill her and get it over with. And, despite how much I love the subgenre, the same might be said of rape-revenge films, even those with an ostensible feminist message (e.g., I Spit on Your Grave), as if the moral equation balances out with the quid pro quo of rape and murderous vengeance. But the feminist view here (at least the right one) is that a woman shouldn't have virtue forced on her, solely defined by others to have her live as they see fit. This is McElroy's quoted distinction in the two views of law, which accurately places certain feminists on the side of traditional conservatives.

Concern for social constraints is, of course, the central dramatic structure of Downton Abbey. The appeal of the "period piece" mostly comes down to modern audiences feeling secure in no longer subscribing to such otiose moralisms while feeling bad for the poor wretches having to live in those unenlightened times. I became fascinated by the show's minimalist, opiated approach to soap opera. The issues that come up are barely issues at all ("we're going to lose Downton and have to move into a smaller estate!"). Something happens to a character; out of decorum that character fears telling anyone; the secret is revealed anyway, but the resolution is that no one particularly cares. That's pretty much the show, methadone for people trying to ween themselves off of melodrama (and period pieces, for that matter). So I was surprised to discover that I'd dozed through the show's depiction of a vicious rape scene. ... Or that's what passed for obvious on some blogs that I read after disputing the issue with Sean Michael Robinson.

Kemal Pamuk

Rather than go quote-for-quote with these other blogs (search for 'Downton Abbey' and 'rape', e.g., here and here), I'm just going to offer my  own reading of the scene in question: Series 1, Episode 3, beginning at 27:00. Kemal Pamuk, a Turkish diplomat is brought to Downton for a visit with the Crawleys by mutual friend Evelyn Napier, during which he aggressively pursues the Lady Mary, visits her bedroom and doesn't take 'no' for a final answer, only to die of a heart attack during the throes of passion. I suspect most people read the show the way it was intended, as a young woman giving in to her desire when given a secretive opportunity, and not as a radical justification of rape, or an example of socalled "rape culture" (which is a tawdry rhetorical term meant to shut up any possible objections, i.e., you don't see this as rape, because you've been rape enculturated). The rape thesis is dependent on reading fear into Mary's face, not granting any subtext to her use of 'no' and her supposed inability to cry out for help. As this blog should indicate, I don't have a general problem with ideological and/or counterintuitive readings (I love them, in fact), but I do when they're demonstrably wrong. So this will be a defense of commonsense (what the show explicitly provides), because sometimes that's exactly what's called for. Covering each of the three points in turn:

Instead of fear, I, like many others, registered her face as one of shock at Pamuk's advances and worry at being publicly shamed should she act on her desires and be discovered. With only a frame, it's ambiguous:

She protests: "You and my parents have something in common. You believe I'm much more of a rebel than I am." But the scene doesn't stop here, there's a continuity of images with movements, actions and reactions, such as this:

I don't think there's much ambiguity there. That is not fear, nor the learned helplessness of some traumatized bunny. However, for the literally minded, she does say among her pants, "now, please go." But Japanese pink cinema this ain't: she wants what Pamuk is offering (which may or may not be coitus -- the show leaves it to our imagination), so the two fall to the bed, even though Mary continues: "I'm not what you think I am. If it's my mistake … if I've led you on, then I'm sorry, but … I'm not …."

They begin to kiss more and Mary asks, "won't it hurt? Is it safe?" Pamuk answers, "trust me," and the scene ends with a passionate embrace:

The intent, however one might wish to read the look of her face in a few frames, is quite clearly that she's not afraid and is actually desirous of Pamuk's advances. So why say, "no"? This gets back to the quote that I began with. This is the law, or the collection of social constraints, speaking through Mary, because that's what's expected of her. She's not the rebel of the family -- that would be her youngest sister, Sybil, who runs off with a Marxist chauffeur and publishes radical suffragette pamphlets. The scene wouldn't work the same way with her, since she wouldn't be attracted to this asshole and would've told him to go fuck himself. No, Mary is the oldest sister, concerned with upholding the traditions of Downton and the aristocracy (which makes her an asshole, too). But the girl still has desires, society or no society, and is, in fact, envious of Sybil's freedom, which she makes explicit in the Christmas special for series 2: "Sybil's the strong one. She really doesn't care what people think, but I'm afraid I do." Mary is supposed to say certain things and is supposed to like certain types of guys. Her dramatic conflicts are rooted in the character trait 'dutiful', of which 'concern for virtue' is a distinctive feature. So no matter how much she might want to have sex, she's not supposed to explicitly express that.

And what of Pamuk, the cad? In a world where his potential love interests -- the class of women he's allowed to be interested in -- aren't allowed to be literal and explicit in their desires, he has to apply some subtextual criticism. This situation, where a lady is surrounded by acceptable suitors competing for her attention is seen earlier in the episode when Mary is surrounded like a fox in a hunt by Pamuk, Evelyn and Matthew. It's a genteel version of a wolf pack, so there's a reason why Pamuk attracts Mary's attention instead of his politely docile competitors, you know? He's better at reading the women in his environment than others. He knows that Mary is expected to say no to his advances, or as he says to her: "You are just what I think you are." The audience is supposed to prefer Matthew because he's the liberalized bourgeois substitute -- not the capitalist thuggery of Sir Richard Carlisle (whom Mary almost marries for reasons of duty), but enough of a modern democrat to bridge the gap between aristocratic ways and contemporary beliefs.

As the show increasingly liberalizes the Crawleys over the three series (acceptance of Sybil's Marxist husband, acceptance of homosexuality, being amazingly tolerant of any questionable choices the staff makes, etc.), it becomes more of a white washed apologetic for what was in reality an odious social arrangement. At least, in series 1, when the butt of all the jokes is Matthew and his mother, there's a hint as to what kind of family we're supposed to find sympathetic and likable in this representation. This class of people was raised to be assholes, was attracted to other assholes and generally behaved like assholes. Pretending otherwise is where the show really becomes immoral (if one insists on treating the show as if it's making a serious commentary about reality). If anything, it's Mary's eventual attraction to Matthew that's forced on her. That's what should be protested.

So why would Mary not cry out if she were truly fearful? The other view suggests that she's concerned with her virtue and how it might be socially tarnished if it were discovered that a man was in her room (even if uninvited). But it's pretty clear from the show that Mary's parents always support their daughter (e.g., upon learning of the whole Pamuk affair in the Christmas special, Papa Crawley says he'd rather have his daughter endure a scandal than be unhappily married to that capitalist scoundrel, Sir Richard), so what evidence is there that Mary wouldn't have cried out if she were truly in fear of Pamuk? I submit: none. But the real clincher comes when Cara (her mother) asks, "did he force himself on you?" Mary pauses for a second, looks off to the side at her housemaid Anna as if she wants to lie, but reluctantly shakes her head no. If protecting the semblance of virtue from her parents was so important that she wouldn't yell for help when being raped, why would she then go on to lie about the rape to her mother, which would only make it seem as if Mary willingly threw away said semblance? The only rationale that makes sense here is that she didn't originally cry out before the sexual encounter because she didn't want to. Her only fear was that of being discovered, which is exactly her focus when talking to Cara about moving Pamuk's corpse back to his room.

Finally, there are Mary's reactions after Pamuk's body is back in his room:

Where Anna consoles a distraught Mary who says while weeping, "he was so beautiful." That doesn't exactly sound like PTSD, does it? Or what about her reaction to Eveyln's summation of Pamuk: "Actually, he was a terribly nice fellow." (See, all assholes.) Reminded of those supposed qualities (and no accounting for taste), Mary begins to uncontrollably sob:

Evelyn asks, "perhaps you saw his qualities for yourself?" Mary can't talk and runs up the stairs to her room. Eveyln pretty much spoonfeeds the audience what the show has set up: "Which obviously … you did." But, if there's some lingering ambiguity to all of this, Mary clears it up when talking to Matthew about the Pamuk affair in series 2's Christmas special: "It was lust, Matthew! Or a need for excitement … or for something in him that I … oh God, what difference does it make?"

To ignore all of that and treat Mary's 'no' as a true indication of her desire is tantamount to subscribing to the conservatives and anti-porn feminists' conflation of social prohibitions with a woman's inner-life. It's also a really thickheaded approach to a TV show.


Downton Abbey
, Series 1, 2 and 3

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