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Freud theory in Anthony Browne’s ‘The Tunnel’

According to Freud and his psychoanalytic theory, girls must learn to mature sexually by navigating their way through the ‘Oedipal Complex’, and (somehow) repress their desire for their father. Rose, the young girl in The Tunnel, undertakes this journey, repressing her incestuous desire for her brother (as there is no father depicted in the family), ultimately accepting the power of the phallus as something she cannot have. In so doing, not only does Rose become sexually mature, she also learns to accept her role of subservience in a patriarchal world.

 

   While some critics may contend that Browne’s beautifully illustrated picture book contradicts the gender stereotyping that can be common in children’s literature, through “the fantasy and symbolism of Rose’s quest…”[1] suggesting feminine empowerment. However, I would argue that it is the fantasy and symbolism, and the complexity of the illustrations in this story that makes such a reading far too simplistic. Using psychoanalytic theory from both Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, I will be analysing Rose’s journey into maturity and normative sexuality.

 

   When the reader is introduced to Rose at the beginning of the story, it is clear she is driven by what Freud calls the ‘Pleasure Principle’, or more specifically, the desire for sexual pleasure.[2] The wallpaper that represents her room and personality in opposition to her brother’s, displays a pattern not unlike a woman’s reproductive system, indicating her preoccupation with her sexuality and gender. Browne also establishes a link between Rose and the story of Little Red Riding Hood quite early in the book; a fairytale often recognised as a story of a young girl’s first sexual encounter with a predatory or seductive male.[3] Rose desires the man’s penis, or phallus, represented by the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. Not only does Rose read books of fairytales constantly, her room is decorated with a red cloak, a picture of Red’s encounter with the wolf, a cottage lamp (perhaps Grandmother’s house), and an arm emerging from the wardrobe reminiscent of grandmother. This link is significant to the development of Rose’s character, as I will discuss in more detail further on, and suggests her innate fixation with sexual maturity and pleasure.

 

   Freud states that such desire for pleasure often occurs in the child’s unconscious mind, through three main pathways: dreams, parapraxes (slips of the tongue), and jokes.[4] In The Tunnel, much of Rose’s desire for her brother emerges through dreams or fantasies. The first example of this can be seen during the night time, when Rose is in bed. Hiding herself under the covers, Rose fantasises about her brother “[creeping] into her room to frighten her”[5], while, “At night, he (Jack) slept soundly in his room.”[6] The contradictory nature of the text suggests that at night, Rose’s repressed sexual desire for her brother emerges from the unconscious.

 

   In western culture, incestual desire is viewed as highly taboo, abnormal and shameful, however, is central to Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. Subsequently, Freud suggests that as “these wishes (of incest) can’t be expressed directly in consciousness, because they are forbidden…”[7], they emerge through dreams. In addition, as discussed by Freud, often these forbidden sexual desires emerge in dreams “in strange ways, in ways that often hide or disguise the true (forbidden) wish behind the dream.”[8] Thus, it is significant that in Rose’s fantasy of her brother, he becomes a character she identifies with from her stories as a strong, sexual predator or seductive man – the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood. The mask of the wolf worn in the illustration not only suggests that Jack’s identity is hidden, disguising the incestuous nature of Rose’s desires, but implies Rose’s desire for a powerful man.

 

   Rose’s forbidden desire for her brother and the fantasies she dreams of are only the beginning of her journey towards adulthood, or sexual development. Freud suggests that in order for the girl to become sexually normative (heterosexual) and navigate through the Oedipal complex, she must move past her sexual drives (such as masturbation), accept the truth that she has no penis (due to castration), and thus identify the male as the superior gender.[9] She begins this journey by entering the tunnel and exploring the ‘dark forest’.

 

   Freud proposes that “at puberty, sexual drives turn from being autoerotic…to being directed at an object, another person.”[10] For Rose, following her brother into the tunnel is symbolic of this transition. The tunnel itself is described as “dark, damp, slimy and scary,”[11] a metaphoric representation of the vagina, and Rose’s ‘penetration’ implying the desire for sexual pleasure, or masturbation. However, while her drives are autoerotic and preoccupied with her own body, Rose is also beginning to make the transition to desiring an object – in this case, her brother Jack. She does not enter the tunnel willingly, and this is stressed in the text as the narrator states: “What could she do? She had to follow him into the tunnel.”[12] Rose’s desires are instinctual, and she is unable to resist her sexual urges or her desire for the phallus (her brother).

 

   The forest, and the events that unfold there are central to Rose’s transition from a pleasure-seeking child to adult. In Freudian terms, the ‘dark forest’ is a representation of Rose’s unconscious desire for the phallus, indicated through the rich symbolic imagery in Browne’s illustrations. In the first image of the forest, the detailed bark of the trees camouflages phallic symbols, once again reflecting Rose’s instinctual desire for the phallus through the abstract nature of the imagination. There is also a hand penetrating a nearby tree, its thumb exposed, suggesting Rose’s autoerotic desire for clitoral stimulation. In addition, the quiet wood and the second illustration of the dark forest both feature blackbirds, a common symbol researched in dream theory and interpretation, often representative of the unconscious mind.[13] Freud himself states in his book, The Interpretation of Dreams, the bird is a phallic symbol, representing “absolute liberty”[14] or freedom. In other dream theory, the blackbird more specifically can represent unconscious urges, the imagination, intuition, and hidden wishes.[15]

 

   If such symbols and their inclusion in Browne’s illustrations are not proof enough that the dark forest gives readers an insight into Rose’s unconscious, the double-page illustration certainly does. The fairytale references included in the illustrations – Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, and Jack and the Beanstalk – all feature powerful, masculine villains, intent on chasing and devouring the main protagonist. It is through these illustrations that Rose, in her unconscious mind, begins to “accept ‘the fact of her castration’”[16] and “develops a sense of inferiority to the male.”[17] In other words, by identifying the villains from these stories (the wolves from Red Riding Hood and the Three Pigs, and the Giant from Jack and the Beanstalk) as masculine and possessing something Rose does not have (a penis), Rose is accepting her inferiority to men, overcoming her ‘penis envy’. It is also significant that the image of the wolf standing over Rose mirrors that of the wolf depicted in the picture in her bedroom, further suggesting that Rose’s fears are constructed representations of her own mind.

 

   The forest, as a narrative construct, is also represented by Browne in another picture book, Into the Forest. In this book, the forest is “in terrain in which a young male protagonist imaginatively explores his anxiety about his father’s unexplained absence.”[18] In both The Tunnel and Into the Forest, Browne creates an environment representative of the protagonist’s mind, a place in which they process and make sense of the changes in their lives. The forest therefore signifies, in Lacanian terms, the ‘realm of the Imaginary’, or otherwise, the phase of demand.[19] According to Lacan, “the Imaginary is the psychic place, or phase, where the child projects its ideas of ‘self’ onto the mirror image it sees,”[20] shifting its focus from identifying with a mirror image (or ‘other’), to developing ‘self’, or ‘I’dentity. Rose’s journey through this realm and seeking her brother subsequently represents her journey towards a solidified, sexually mature and gendered self.

 

   Rose’s acceptance of her gender and sexuality, and thus inferiority to the man, occurs as she enters the clearing where her brother stands as a stone statue. The clearing, depicted with dark, ominous clouds above a field of stumps, emphasises the feeling of loss Rose feels. While this loss may be read as an expression of family love, as Rose grieves for her missing brother, there is also an underlying feeling of loss of the phallus. Thus, upon finding her brother has been turned to stone, Rose essentially ‘accepts’ that she has been castrated, and cannot have the phallus.[21] Her brother is unattainable, and her dialogue indicated this realisation: “Oh no! I’m too late!”[22]

 

   To this point, we have discussed how Rose develops her gender identity and sexuality through navigating the Oedipal complex, and accepting the truth that she cannot act on her desire for her brother, or possess the phallus. However, how does she end her incestuous desire for her brother (or father, as Freud claims)? As Klages states, “Freud is at best fuzzy on this.”[23] There are many theories about this process, but generally, Freud indicates the idea that women do not completely repress their desires at all. In his opinion, as girls have already been castrated and therefore lack this strong motive to repress forbidden desires as men do, they “never really do form a strong superego…”[24] If we take this view, while Rose becomes sexually mature, and thus accepts her gender role and inferiority to the male, she does not fully suppress her incestuous desire. In the final image of Rose with her brother, the reader can see some of her desire resonate in her gaze as she smiles at Jack. Her gaze is almost seductive, soft and pleasing, indicating her new-found, mature, sexuality. Browne presents Rose as “not as moral or just as men,”[25] ruled by her feelings throughout the entire book, and is a perfect example of the inferior, emotional woman Freud describes throughout his research of psychoanalysis.

 

   The representation of gender through both text and illustrations also contributes to patriarchal empowerment. When the reader is first introduced to Rose and Jack, we are immediately aware of the stereotypical nature of their gender. Consistent with the description that they are “a sister and brother who were not at all alike,”[26] Jack wears bright, primary colours while Rose wears pastel, secondary colours; Jack’s hair is fair while Rose’s is dark; Jack crosses his arms comfortably while Rose folds hers behind her. In addition, their personalities reflect the binary nature of femininity and masculinity, represented in the schemata set out by Stephens (1996):

 

Masculinity

Femininity

  • Strong
  • Violent
  • Unemotional/hard/tough
  • Aggressive/authoritarian
  • Transgressive
  • Rational
  • Represents culture/ civilisation.
  • Good/kind
  • Non-violent
  • Emotional/soft
  • Yielding
  • Submissive/compliant
  • Obedient/pleasing
  • Intuitive
  • Represents nature/the primitive.[27]

 

 

 

   Jack, by “throwing and kicking, roughing and tumbling,”[28] embodies many of the above attributes in contrast with quiet, secluded Rose. Furthermore, despite Rose’s journey to ‘save’ her brother, and the apparent display of agency normally associated with masculinity, she remains non-violent, emotional and submissive. Indeed, instead of battling to free her brother, or using her intelligence or wit to win him (as is usual for the ‘hero’ in fairytales), Rose must simply hug her brother as she sobs about her apparent failure.

 

   Stephens (1996) reflects that gender in children’s literature is “not simply an attribute of content or a reflection of cultural formation within texts. Rather, it exists in more complex ways which include the assumptions and expectations of authors and audiences…”[29] In other words, gender roles and their creation depend on both the assumptions and expectations of the author, the reader, and dominant culture in society. Keeping this in mind, while Browne may appear to be creating a text in which femininity becomes empowered, thus breaking the typical fairytale mould of patriarchal power, his traditional representations of gender contradicts this message.

 

   It is also significant to Rose’s character and gender construction that she wears a Little Red Riding Hood cape throughout her journey. Typically, Red Riding Hood is a girl represented as disobedient, unintelligent and helpless, dependant on a strong masculine figure (the woodcutter) to save her. Symbolically, Rose’s red cape contradicts Browne’s attempt to create a heroine, as it aligns her with Red’s character.

 

 

   This contradiction emerges in another of Browne’s books, entitled Piggybook, and is discussed by Bradford (1998). She states that Piggybook “… [contests] the notion that if men and women simply exchange roles, gender equality will inevitably result.”[30] While we are not speaking of gender as defined by their domestic duties, as in Piggybook, Rose and Jack nevertheless loosely exchange their generic ‘hero’ and ‘damsel’ roles. However, as we can see through Browne’s binary characterisation, and the outcome of Rose’s journey, The Tunnel is not a story of feminist empowerment or gender equality. Her journey through the Oedipal complex, her acceptance of a gender role characterised by passivity, and her inferiority to the man is subtly indicated on the final pages, where Browne illustrates Rose and Jack’s connection by placing his ball and her book on his side of the page. The image reminds the reader that Rose has accepted her place in patriarchal society, and the neatness of the closure, or ‘happy ending’, suggests that Rose is content with her gender role and identity.

 


[1] Bradford, C, 1998, p. 79.

[2] Klages, M, 2006, p. 63.

[3]

[4] Klages, M, 2006, pp. 64-65.

[5] Browne, A, 1989, page unknown.

[6] Ibid, page unknown

[7] Klages, M, 2006, p. 64.

[8] Ibid, p. 64.

[9] Ibid, pp

[10] Ibid, p. 67.

[11] Browne, A, 1989.

[12] Browne, A, 1989.

[13] Crisp, T, 2003, www.dreamhawk.com

[14] Freud, S, 1955, ed. by Richards, A, 1991, p. 518.

[15] Crisp, T, 2003, www.dreamhawk.com

[16] Klages, M 2006, p. 71.

[17] Ibid, pp 71-72.

[18] Bullen, E and Parsons, E, 2008, p.1.

[19] Klages, M, 2006, p. 80.

[20] Ibid, p. 81.

[21] Klages, M, 2006, pp. 71-72.

[22] Browne, A, 1989.

[23] Klages, M, 2006, p. 72.

[24] Ibid, p. 73.

[25] Klages, M, 2006, p. 73.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Stephens, J, 1996, pp. 18-19.

[28] Browne. A. 1989.

[29] Stephens, J, 1996, p. 17.

[30] Bradford, C, 1998, p. 80.

an ‘inbetween posts’ post

Thought I would share a poem I found the other day that I quite liked, since I’m in the middle of writing a couple of other posts at the moment. There was no title attached, nor an author to credit. Enjoy.

 

 

Goddess recall

The eternity of winter

 

Manipulate the sky

Smooth, black

Symphony

We watch the shadow

Sleep

 

– Unknown

Yes, I know they’re permanent…

I have always been fascinated by tattoos for as long as I can remember. For me, they represent two very different, very personal loves dear to my heart – art and history – and having just recently had another beautiful image inked into my skin, I thought I would write about these things and why tattooing, I believe, is one of the ‘refinements’ of civilisation.

It was in 1991 when archaeologists dated a man’s remains, found in Austria, and discovered that he was 5000 years old – the oldest mummified corpse found with tattoos. The ‘ice-man’, named Otzi, has small dark lined tattoos across his knees and ankles, leading scientists to believe these were made to assist in managing the pain of arthritis. This is not an outrageous claim – many cultures believed tattoos possessed healing powers and we used to treat very specific ailments, or encourage health, depending on the placement of the tattoo design.

It is amazing that such a practice has an ancient history across so many cultures. After all, thousands of years ago tattoos were not made with the incredibly fine, powered needles we use today. Literally, the skin would have been pierced with something sharp (often a piece of carved hard-wood hammered into the skin) and subsequently filled with a plant-based ink. It would have hurt. A lot. The very first tattoos are supposed to have been accidents, now known as ‘traumatic’ tattoos. These occur when the skin is broken due to an injury, and the cut becomes infected by dirt, ash, or other material. Thus the idea was coined.

Tattoos have always been a unique form of communication across cultures too. Some indicate military/hunting achievements, marital status, spiritualism and religion, social status, beauty, rites of passage, and even individualism, just like today. Some religions view tattooing as a link to paganism and even Satan, and as such, is banned. Indeed, when European colonists explored the world and encountered this practice, they immediately associated it with inferiority and a ‘wildness’ innate in such ‘uncivilised’ people. However, what could be more civilised than a cultural practice that communicates as effectively as writing or speaking a language?

Tattoos are a universal language; just like a painting carries meaning to those who view it, so too does a tattoo hold a story. Some people may not particularly like certain types of art. You don’t have to like them, however, to appreciate their artistry or learn their meaning.

Despite the pain, it appeals to me that I have not only something I regard as beautiful etched into my body, but also something that symbolises the rich history of cultural practice. I especially like the Polynesian history of tattooing. Their tattoos, or tatau, were used to indicate a person’s mana. Mana is a person’s spiritual power or life-force, their strengths and their links to the environment. Almost like a window to the soul.

I was surprised to discover that women have always been strongly associated with tattooing in some countries such as Hawaii and Egypt. In Egypt, tattoos were considered decorative, enhancing women’s beauty through intricate designs on their body. The Goddess Hathor, representing beauty and love, has often been depicted in temples and artwork as having tattoos herself, and female mummies have been discovered with delicate patterns tattooed on their flesh. Hawaii’s affinity with tattoos has been long documented, and it was common for women to be tattooed on their hands, fingers, wrists and even tongues. As well as being ornamental, these tattoos were unique in that they also communicated that woman’s mana, her family, or her tribe. In both ancient cultures, however, tattoos were viewed as a representation of femininity and beauty. Clearly this idea contrasts to the general Western notion that tattoos on women are unflattering and ugly, making them look “cheap” and “low class” . The term ‘tramp stamp’ springs to mind – a term I dislike simply for the association it suggests between tattoos and prostitutes. Does having a tattoo make me a hooker now?

Nowadays, tattoos always demonstrate a person’s mana. They are personal, unique, and even if they were decided upon in a rushed manner when that person was 16, they still reflect that individual’s experiences in life.

I got my first tattoo when I was 21. This was important to me because at 21, I had ‘done’ everything else that required an age limit. I’d wanted one since I was a child, so I got one that had a certain significance to me as a child. Both tattoos reflect the value I place on literature. Both mean a great deal to me, and have stories attached to them. My mana shines through them and I love being able to tell people what they represent if they happen to comment.

I understand that as art, not everyone is going to like them. I’m not asking them to. I find the panicked response to the permanent nature of being etched rather amusing. The question, “what about when you’re old?” is inherently silly. I’ll have saggy, distorted tattoos, that’s what! And I can’t wait to be that crazy Granny, embarrassing my grandchildren by flashing them around.

Getting to know Holden Caulfield

As a literature lover and teacher, I found it incredibly frustrating to hear my entire class say that they either hated or severely disliked the character of Holden Caulfield. As the protagonist of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, Holden is a difficult character to like, and certainly not one to admire (however, he isn’t really constructed to do either). Nevertheless, I was disappointed that after all my efforts to teach my students that literature was innately about depth and complexity of understanding (among other things), they were still responding in a singular and emotional way.

Their unanimous reaction was incredibly ironic in that one of the characteristics they disliked in Holden – his unsubstantiated judgemental nature – they themselves displayed in that moment.

Their reaction also gave me an idea about how I could challenge myself as a teacher, and at the same time, their perceptions. I resolved that by the end of our study of the text, I would have convinced all of them that:

a) there’s a little (or a lot) of Holden in all of us, thus making him and the text relevant even today;

b) he is someone to pity, and it would be unfair of us to hate someone so pitiable; and

c) Salinger has created one of the most complex and unique characters in literary history, and that in respecting this, we need to take the time to get to know and understand Holden.

I won’t bore you with the detailed lessons I mapped out to encourage my class to change their opinions, but I will briefly outline my interpretation of the character that they helped me to develop.

I realised very quickly during my first reading that I see Holden Caulfields everyday. They are the rude students, the lazy students, the students going through hormonal changes and are preoccupied with the opposite sex, students who have convinced themselves they’re dumb and students who refuse to try because they dislike the teacher. Sadly, I even know students who suffer serious anxiety and/or metal problems. The class acknowledged that they too know or have friends who are ‘Holdens’. His arrogance, vulnerability, perceptions, judgements, challenges, doubts and misconceptions are universal.

Structurally, ‘Catcher’ is written in first person and embeds Holden’s recollection of a long weekend in a frame narrative. The beginning and the end of the novel are therefore vital to the reader’s understanding of his character, as we discover that a year has passed since the weekend he writes of, and he has, in some way, ended up in a mental hospital or corrective clinic. This knowledge changes our entire perception of his character, as we are invited to pity him.

Holden is a many-layered character, and I don’t mean that he simply has many complexities or facets of personality, like many other beautifully constructed characters. I mean that in terms of how the narrative, and thus the character, is constructed, there are many levels of understanding readers are invited to make. For example, what he says and what he actually feels are often different. His actions are significant to understanding his true intention or feeling. He shares moments of incredible adult insight, and yet, also demonstrates an attachment to immaturity that can be very frustrating. As readers, we often have to trust his narration, even though we know it is unreliable. Holden contradicts himself constantly through the novel, further indicating the fragility of his identity.

His flaws are indeed too hard to overcome, for us as readers and for himself. My class quickly realised why many have supposedly been driven to suicide after reading ‘Catcher’ – it offers no hope for Holden’s future, and too many have seen themselves captured and represented by Salinger on the page. In these cases, perhaps, Holden is a little too relatable.

Even as the reader is subtly given insight into Holden’s emotional breakdown after watching his sister Phoebe on the merry-go-round, the final page of the narrative gives us little hope of change, motivation and hope for himself. He has suffered greatly, and feels that his experience is important enough to narrate, yet has learned nothing. After all the advice given and love shared by his sister, we realise the sad truth – Holden must have agency for his future, or nothing will change for him. Ultimately, he is lost. No one has been there to ‘catch’ him, and Salinger depicts his slow fall as the narrative progresses. He often admits “I was sort of crying. I don’t know why.” Not even Holden understands why he feels the way he does in the novel and we as readers, reliant upon his narration, subsequently fall with him.

Despite all this, my class and I conceded to enjoying two major aspects of the text, and indeed, Holden’s character. The first is the incredible humour Salinger creates through the almost brutally honest narrative of Holden’s. His descriptions of Ackley, Stradlater and others he refers to along the way are truly hilarious and off-putting at the same time.

“You could also hear old Ackley snoring. Right through the goddam shower curtains you could hear him. he has sinus trouble and he couldn’t breathe too hot when he was asleep. That guy had just about everything. Sinus trouble, pimples, lousy teeth, halitosis, crumby fingernails…”

The other part of the text we loved was the incredibly profound analogies Holden makes about his life and adulthood. One such example is about the museum, where he reflects upon why he enjoys seeing the displays as they, unlike him, are ageless. He states “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs… Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you” His anxiety about change is clear, yet sadly, he cannot fight it. Near the end, he both laughs and cries whilst holding himself separate to his sister’s innocent joy on the merry-go-round. His longing for stability, for happiness, for the simplicity of childhood, is something we have all felt at some stage in our lives. Salinger captures these emotions and nostalgia beautifully through such analogies.

“ I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could’ve been there.”

So my challenge was made and it was met. I was gratified that not one of my class put their hand up when I asked: “Who still hates Holden Caulfield?” at the end of the semester, and the class in turn helped me develop my own understanding of the character. Furthermore, Holden summed up perfectly how I myself felt about losing my Literature class at the end of semester when he said “Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that’s impossible, but it’s too bad anyway.” Kids grow up and move onwards, leaving teachers behind. And it is too bad.

‘Sucker Punch’: A review

A week ago I went to see a film with a friend. It was a film I had not seriously considered seeing before, as the trailer gave me the impression that it was going to be a typical action film with no plot. I was actually very wrong in this assumption. Sucker Punch, despite having some amazing action scenes with scantily-clad women in it, was actually very much plot driven, and displayed some amazing visual artistry.

The reason I have been inspired to write about this film is that I was surprised that in addition to having a reasonable plot, the director Zach Snyder actually seemed to want to communicate a message of feminine empowerment through the characters and storyline.

However, the film was disappointing in a couple of ways. It was disappointing because the plot and characters did not quite live up to the high standard of the action scenes and CGI created realities. While Emily Browning portrayed her character’s quiet strength extremely well, other actresses’ (namely Vanessa Hudgens)characters were clearly underdeveloped fillers.  The film was also a little disappointing in that the empowerment supposedly achieved by the girls and professed by the narrator (Sweet Pea) at the film’s close was in my opinion, completely false.

I’ve heard critics comment on a few plot holes and for the most part I agree there were issues with the storyline, almost as though Snyder had made the film too confusing by separating three different realities. However, critics have commented on the fact that they wanted to see Baby Doll dance. I am actually glad that this was never shown, and not just because it invited audiences to be captivated by their own imaginations, thinking about their own ideas of what the amazing sexy dance could look like. It made sense to me that the dance to Baby Doll was simply a way for her mind to go somewhere else and essentially kick butt. The only reason it was considered erotic was because the audience is shown the reactions of the people watching. And remembering that the brothel ‘reality’ was again a part of Baby Doll’s (or Sweet Pea’s, it isn’t clear) mind, it is important that we see the next level of reality it takes us through her mind.

So I suppose what I’m saying is that I enjoyed the visual aspect of this film, but I found the message of empowerment was contradicted too much to be clearly communicated. Firstly, in the opening scene, we see that Baby Doll’s stepfather kills her sister. This is not resolved and although the protagonist uses this experience to fuel her determination and hope for escape later in the film, her stepfather was the man who placed her in the instiution in the first place! It is implied at the end that he will be punished for breaking the law, however, for a character we are clearly supposed to dislike, it seems a shame that we are not privy to his downfall. He is the cause of her death, and I fail to see how this is empowering for women.

Secondly, in the third reality where Baby Doll battles literal and metaphoric enemies (very reminiscent of Pans Labyrinth, actually), she is guided by the ‘Wise Man’. While a part of her own mind, the fact that Baby Doll’s knowledge, motivation and ‘wisdom’ is represented by a man’s image is hardly a figment of feminine empowerment.

Thirdly, despite the orderly/pimp Blue losing his possession and control of Baby Doll near the end, he has nevertheless still ensured that she be lobotomised and placed in a vegetative state. He is shattered by the loss, however this still does not provide any empowerment to a woman who is trapped in a mental asylum and is essentially a zombie.

Lastly, and most importantly, the audience is encouraged to be happy about the sacrifices made by Baby Doll as we see that it has freed Sweet Pea. She is about to board a bus, seemingly ready to move on with her life, completely empowered, when she is stopped by police. They begin to question her when guess who steps in to save her? The ‘Wise Man’ from Baby Doll’s reality. Essentially this ending directly contradicts the narrator’s speech at the time, as Sweet Pea is advocating the need to ‘fight’ for freedom. But she fails to fight when she needs to the most, and instead is reduced to a kind of stereotypical damsel in distress, just to be saved by the wise hero.

So that’s my review. I really liked this film – the character of Baby Doll was in some ways very strong, the layers of reality created for the audience were visually stunning, the action was fantastic and the soundtrack was amazing![i] If you haven’t seen the film yet, you definitely should based on this alone. I just really wish that Snyder had considered the message of feminine empowerment in further detail. More was taken away from these characters than what they gained back for themselves, especially considering most of them died (in my opinion, Baby Doll’s lobotomy was equal to death so I count her in this too) in a world controlled by men. Unfortunately, the message I was given was something like: “As a woman in a patriarchal society, you can try to fight, but ultimately, your fate is governed by the will of men. Good luck anyway.”

A visual from the 'third reality' in the film


[i] Despite the issues I have with the film’s message, I absolutely adored the soundtrack. The angry, sensual, electronic sounds of the battle scenes and Emily Browning’s vocals in a re-vamped ‘Sweet Dreams (are made of this)’ were atmospheric in the film, and even better listened to in the car nice and loudly.

bad romance?

When I began researching[i] for this blog, I initially wanted to write about romance – what it is and whether or not it is still alive – in our society today. I came to realise, after asking many friends the question “What is romance?”, that romance, love and lust are all inextricably linked in their minds. For me, it is important to define what I meant by romance, before asking if it still exists.

The problem is that romance is a concept, unlike love and lust, that is always in flux as time passes and society, and people, change. We all change our values and opinions over time, and this influences things like romance. For example, to use a literary example, romance in Austen’s time was clearly linked to mutual respect, generosity, and sharing private moments where self-control was paramount, yet body language and communication conveyed volumes. Romance now, unfortunately, seems to be embodied by sparkly, undead boys, who ‘prove’ their undying love by stalking and rejecting their partners ‘for their own good’. It also seems that any kind of bad behaviour can be justified by linking it to love.

Clearly our values have changed. And, in my opinion, romance has become a giant cliché, fuelled by Hollywood ‘Rom-Coms’ and a severe lack of imagination.

In the dictionary, romance is defined as:

a. A love affair.

b. Ardent emotional attachment or involvement between people; love: They kept the romance alive in their marriage for 35 years.

c. A strong, sometimes short-lived attachment, fascination, or enthusiasm for something: a childhood romance with the sea.

d. A mysterious or fascinating quality or appeal, as of something adventurous, heroic, or strangely beautiful.

When I was inspired to write about romance, the closest definition to what I had in my mind was a combination of ‘c’ and ‘d’, or just simply, the things people do and/or share with each other when they are in love. The ways they show their love that might be considered ‘romantic’.

One friend said this about what they think romance, or being romantic, is:

“caring for someone. Not roses and jewellery, but genuinely caring about your partner…Being thoughtful.”

Another said:

“romance is making the ordinary special, the unexpected kindness in touch or word or look, the squeeze of your hand in a crowd, the understanding smile and the suggestive twinkle in the eye that only you can see.”

Both of these suggest that romance is very much a personal experience. Each person I spoke to considered different actions to be romantic, depending on what they value. For me, clichéd behaviours such as flowers, saying “you look nice/beautiful” on a date, holding hands during a film, and proposing in a public place (just to name a few), tend to induce dry reaching and even vomiting, however, some people may value these actions.

I despise romance being made into some kind of ‘show’ of affection. Romance is private and personal, not something to be announced to others, and should not be a cliché. To use an example, if a man buys a woman expensive chocolates, and asks for them to be delivered to her work, it is generally considered extremely romantic and sweet.

Gag.

All this action shows is that the man is arrogant enough to want to show her colleagues what a great and thoughtful man he is. “Look at me everyone! I sent her chocolates, how romantic am I?” Hold up the applause sign.

However, it requires no thought, no contact, no emotion.

It is ‘romantic’ actions such as these that make me and others feel that “romance is lies.”[ii] Romance is a completely contrived experience when it is motivated by pride, or the need for bragging rights, or to make oneself feel more loving. Ultimately, I feel that these actions are simply motivated by the desire for sex. Do you think that the woman receiving said chocolates at work felt obliged to have sex with the man who sent them? Absolutely!

So do I believe that romance – true, shared, selfless romance – still exists?

Well, surprise, surprise everyone, I do actually. Despite all my intense cynicism and incredible dislike of clichés, I do think that romance, when discovered with someone, can be as unique as the relationship. And, if that means for you romance is giving flowers, chocolates, and saying how nice someone looks on a first date, then you can comment on this blog and tell me to stick it.

I probably won’t approve the comment, but say it anyway.


[i] I say ‘researching’ like I’m some kind of professional writer, but realistically, all I did was ask a few friends their opinion, jump on YouTube and check out some websites on the Google-machine.

[ii] My friend Edward came up with this one.

strewn with bent panels and whiplash

I saw his car hurtling toward me and braced myself, locking my elbows sharply as I felt the impact send a shock through my spine and my head flying towards the steering wheel.

Thinking back to this sickening moment, I wish I’d of seen everything that followed the crash as clearly as the event.

If having a mangled car because some bogan can’t concentrate wasn’t stressful enough, my stress levels were about to skyrocket as I picked up my phone to call him, asking for his claim number.

I dialled and took a deep breath. The call connected, and a robotic woman’s voice told me calmly, that “I’m sorry. The number you have called has been disconnected…”

As I hung up, the noise around me seemed to dissolve and the sound of the proverbial penny dropping was like a nuclear explosion in my ear drum. I remembered the guy who hit me trying to leave without giving me his contact phone number. I was furious with myself for not being calm enough to notice how dodgy he was.

I called his insurance company without hope, and this time, my instincts were switched on.

“I’m sorry,” The woman’s voice echoed her pity for me. “We have no record of that man in our database. Are you sure you have the correct details?”

Yep. Pretty sure. Pretty sure I’m really pissed off right now too.

She recommended I call the police.

***

 

I’m feeling, after a week of stress, surprisingly relaxed and calm in the knowledge that I know where this man lives. He may have thought I was a stupid girl, whom he could take advantage of and swindle because I was shaken and softly spoken. He thought he could get away with not paying for his stupidity.

He has never been more wrong.

He hit my car. A car that I happen to like. And nothing makes me angrier than someone who thinks they can take advantage of me. I am going to get the most expensive quote I can for the damage he caused. I’m going to get a lawyer to draft me a letter that to him, says “You’re fucked” in language he probably won’t understand. He won’t really need to understand the words though, only the numbers. And I will be sitting at home, holding a tim tam and a coffee, imagining his expression as he realises he has to pay me a lot of money.

And I’ll laugh.