Exploring Gender Conventions in Film Essay
Exploring Gender Conventions in Film
The American melodrama film, Mildred Pierce, directed by Todd Haynes, was based on the 1941 novel, written by James Cain. Mildred Pierce explores the roles of gender and class during the economic hardships of the stock market crash and the depression. This novel is a very effective representation of the 1930’s and 1940’s turmoil. An interview with Todd Haynes titled, “Something That is Dangerous and Arousing and Transgressive,” was done by Julia Leyda; and in that interview, Todd Haynes explains that women, “struggle with their embodiment, their identity, their social positions” (Leyda).
James Cain created Mildred to be a woman who expressed many different attributes that women would not normally have during this time period and with the happening of the Great Depression. In his novel, Mildred represents a lower-middle-class woman who went through a divorce. Although she is a single parent in the beginning of the book, or as her friend Lucy calls it, a “grass widow,” she has the ambition to work and help Bert provide for their family.
This book touches on a different aspect of gender expectations because during this time period many of the men did not have jobs and the women were the one’s working and earning money. This is evident through her ex-husband Bert, and her new husband (later in the film), Monty. Neither of them had jobs, she refers to them as loafs, and she does all that she can to provide for them. Mildred is embarrassed by some of the job offerings she got and does not want to disappoint her self-aggrandizing daughter. As mentioned in chapter five, it is obvious that Mildred fears Veda.
The novel reads: She was afraid of Veda, of her snobbery, her contempt, her unbreakable spirit. And she was afraid of something that seemed always lurking under Veda’s bland, phony toniness: a cold, cruel, coarse desire to torture her mother, to humiliate her, above everything else, to hurt her. Mildred apparently yearned for warm affection from this child[… ] but all she ever got was a stagy, affected counterfeit. (Cain 86) Mildred was constantly trying to impress Veda and her dreams of becoming rich, whereas in this family’s present state, it was almost impossible.
Mildred even had to break down and beat Veda because she had been so vicious toward her when all Mildred ever did was bust her ass to earn enough money for her children. And for a while, Mildred even kept work a secret so that her own children would not have to worry about their family falling apart and finding out that they were lower middle class. One really important part of this book was when Mildred stood up to Veda and said, “You may not realize it, but everything you have costs money, from the maid that you ordered to go traipsing with you to the pool, to your food, and everything else that you have” (Cain 85).
Mildred has a strong will to keep her family strong, but at the same time she faces two weaknesses: sleeping with men, and having a strong devotion to please her daughter Veda, who lives in a fantasy wishing she were upper-class. It is odd because she resorts to sex when she encounters stress and her sexual life is her sense of freedom; but when it comes to her work life, she is constantly on the edge and she does not indulge in it. Work is often what causes the stress in her life. In addition, Monty has the same fantasy as Veda and in the end of the film we see Mildred being pushed away from both of them, and eventually they end up together.
Throughout the whole novel, Veda and Monty represent the upper-class and Mildred admires Veda so much because she is a reminder that there is hope to get to a better state during the depression. At one point in the novel Mildred even tells Veda that everything good happens on account of her. Haynes focuses on gender and class as huge themes in this film and he states that: what’s so fascinating about Mildred as a character is the way she has all of this potential for incredible productive and sexual success: a willfulness and a sense that she deserves it.
Of course, there are all kinds of things she has to overcome initially, the sense of pride, before she can go out and get a job and work her way up the ladder and discover her innate talents[… ] while at the same time being so thoroughly harnessed to a whole other set of terms that have everything to do with feminine identification and subjectivity, and mothering, and class. (Leyda) After Mildred accepts the fact that she must inherit a job, she becomes very good at what she does and she takes all of her domestic attributes and converts them into the work-field through taking up a job at a restaurant.
Compared to the other women and families during the time of depression, many of them lost jobs, large amounts of money, homes, family, and many other things. With these important aspects on the line, Mildred remains strong and uses her willpower to overcome the obstacles thrown her way. This touches on class a lot and Mildred does a phenomenal job at keeping her family secure through this very tough time. As a lower middle class woman stuck in the depression, Mildred was very resilient and hard working toward recovering from the stock market crash and the depression which left her and her family with almost nothing.
Another film that deals a lot with gender is the 2009 spine-chilling horror film Splice, directed by Vincenzo Natali. This film features two young genetic engineering scientists, Elsa and Clive, who are trying to discover a new protein for pharmaceutical purposes. The blog post on shaviro. com about this movie reads, “Splice never departs from being a genre film; but the way it twists genre conventions is powerful and original” (Shaviro). This movie reworks some of the themes and motifs that appeared in Frankenstein and Eraserhead.
Throughout the entire film, Elsa seems to be the better educated of the two, but together they create a blob-like figure in each gender, and as they are developing they will soon be presented to their team to show them reproducing. While all of this was happening, Elsa and Clive decide that since they were successful with the first part of their experiment, they would like to make it more challenging and add human DNA to the specimen (although they were told not to because of the dangers) and see what the end result is. Once again, they are successful and they have now created a new creature with human DNA in it.
Clive wants to kill it – which shows his aggressive and protective side, two qualities often found in males – but Elsa becomes very attached to it and obtains motherly qualities toward it – which is evidently linked to women gender expectations. Mentioned in the blog post, “Most of the movie is taken up with Elsa’s “mothering” of Dren, with Clive as the somewhat distant father figure. And this is where any prejudice that “mothering” might be “natural,” or inherently “feminine,” or inherently hardwired in Elsa’s, or any woman’s, genes, definitively breaks down” (Shaviro).
Elsa convinces Clive to keep it alive so that they can “study it closely,” when all she really wants is to protect it like her own child – it does contain her own DNA after all. She has a horrific style of parenting in that she treats Dren with respect at one moment, and then flips the complete opposite the next. From the interview, the author says that, “There is clearly something narcissistic and self-obsessed here; all the more so when we learn that Clive wants to have a child, but Elsa is reluctant” (Shaviro).
Elsa decides to play it safe and instead of bearing her own child, which would take her away from her work and give her less control, she genetically creates Dren a hybrid of animal DNA as well as her own. As it grows up, they must keep it a secret because they were never authorized to do so by their company. Clive grows very attached and attracted to Dren, but later finds out that Elsa put her own DNA into the creature and he is furious with her and realizes that this is why she had become so obsessive and protective over Dren.
She even gets angry with Clive when he refers to Dren as a specimen and not a “she. ” As Elsa and Clive are absentmindedly worrying about their own problems as a couple, the two creatures they created in the beginning, Fred and Ginger, undergo a weird switch. Ginger switches from a male to female while they are presenting their new specimen to their research team. In this part of the film Ginger and Fred (both males at this point) brutally murder each other instead of reproducing like intended, leaving the audience in shock with blood and guts flying freely.
Because Elsa and Clive were so involved in Dren and had been neglecting their real experiment, everything went wrong. This goes to show just how restricted the gender expectations are among humans. It labels males as violent and aggressive, especially toward each other, which touches on the way society sees gay men and how unacceptable it appears to be. Another few actions that represent the expectations of gender are when Elsa treats Dren like her own child and forces a motherly figure, and when Clive has sex with Dren.
This scene is really disturbing because one, the creature isn’t human, and two, Dren has some of his girlfriend’s DNA in her. Toward the end of the film things get even worse. Dren also switches from female to male and attacks a few people and then kills Clive with the retractable stinger in his tail, then he rapes Elsa and Elsa gets away and kills him before he does anymore destruction. This points out that men are very inclined to sex and are almost seen as uncontrollable. It also makes women seem more vulnerable, especially with Elsa being raped by Dren later in the film.
In the very last scene of the film, Elsa is pregnant with Dren’s baby and is going to have the baby and give it to the company for more experimentation and does not seem to care, even though it is very crude. The interview reads, “Splice‘s focus upon a woman instead of a man as the “mad scientist” figure whose creations ultimately lead to catastrophe has been quite a point of contention” (Shaviro) and this is a different aspect to the movie Frankenstein, which was basically the same plot with a ale scientist and no technology. In conclusion the interview claimed, “Gender roles are oddly reinforced[… ] The film entirely scrambles our sense of what is natural and what is artificial” (Shaviro). Splice is very twisted and touches on a lot of weird expectations that society has made out for men and women. It paints men to be very controlling, defiant, and drawn toward sex, and it paints women to be very motherly, protective of their children, and caring toward others.