Monday, April 27, 2020

"Pre-Text and Text" Meets "Feds"

Here's another college essay from decades past. Nowadays I would probably not be so bold as to write a blog post about someone else's writing, only to essentialy throw out their premise and propose a "better" one, but such was college me. In truth, Arbuthnot and Seneca's article is one of only a handful of readings that have stuck with me through the decades, and I didn't at all mean to sound dismissive or disrespectful. I was trying, I suppose, to show -- in the words of my professor -- that "Arbuthnot and Seneca's methodology is ultimately more valuable than their argument for Gentlemen."

Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
In their article "Pre-text and Text in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," Lucie Arbuthnot and Gail Seneca argue that the 1953 film contains a feminist text which undermines the patriarchal "pre-text" of heterosexual romance. This text, they claim, satisfies two feminist requirements: female resistance to sexual objectification and strong interpersonal female relationships. The authors concede that the film is a product of the patriarchy. They argue, however, "that it is important to recoup from male culture some of the pleasure which it has always denied [feminist-thinking women]." [note 1] Their reading of Gentlemen isolates elements which define the proposed feminist text, and is a more compelling feminist reading than one might think possible of such a film. Still, claiming that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes contains a subversive feminist text is a tough sell. While Arbuthnot and Seneca cite various examples of how Dorothy and Lorelei resist objectification and favor their own friendship over their romantic relationships with men, these examples are dwarfed by the overwhelming presence of a patriarchal construct which seeks to objectify women and make them subordinate to the patriarchy.

Dorothy and Lorelei are most certainly constructed as objects to be looked at by men: they are performers who sing and dance for men in the film (and therefore for the men in the film's audience); they are made into spectacle during unjustified (offstage) musical numbers; and their entrances into film space are prefaced by the leering offscreen gazes of the male characters, while their own glances are never illustrated in the same way (through eyeline matches or subjective shots). Furthermore, the two women succeed only by acquiescing in their sexual objectification and by using that objectification to advance only as far as they, as women, are allowed within the confines of the male-dominated society. Their success is gauged in their ability to marry -- marriage is the only way the two women can finally "make the grade."

As difficult as it is to fully accept the authors' feminist reading of Gentlemen, however, it is impossible to disregard it. That any progressive feminist material could be found within a 1950's Hollywood production featuring two women whose entire careers centered on the marketing of their fetishized sex appeal is, at least, interesting. That Arbuthnot and Seneca were able to find as much material as they did in Gentlemen is fascinating. Also of great interest is the authors' desire to "recoup" female pleasure and "discover feminist pleasures within films of the dominant culture." [note 2] Hollywood productions, though undeniably products of the patriarchy, constitute the largest part of this country's filmic output. While the debate over the possibility of female spectatorship often seems more the subject of critical treatises than of films easily accessible to most women, finding feminist pleasure in Hollywood productions seems not merely an interesting idea, but a feminist necessity.

This task, which may certainly seem as overwhelming as the patriarchal structure which complicates it, is advanced by the model adopted by Arbuthnot and Seneca for their reading of Gentlemen. While that film, as mentioned above, is perhaps not the most cooperative subject for their model, the 1988 production Feds demonstrates remarkable compliancy to their criteria. Like Gentlemen, this film features two female lead characters who value their own friendship more than their romantic relationships with men, and who resist sexual objectification. Unlike Gentlemen, however, Feds subverts the patriarchal construct which undoes the reading of Gentlemen, and in doing so preserves a significant feminist text.

Mary Gross and Rebecca De Mornay in Feds
Feds plots the trials of two women, Ellie DeWitt (Rebecca DeMornay) and Janice Zuckerman (Mary Gross), trying to graduate from the FBI training academy. Both women have been made aware that they have been accepted into the program only to fulfill a female quota. DeWitt, an ex-marine, and Zuckerman, a bookish scholar, both have trouble succeeding alone (DeWitt fails at academics, Zuckerman at physical exercises). At one point, Zuckerman is so discouraged that she announces her intention to quit. DeWitt convinces her to stay, and with each other's help the two show great improvement. The two trainees advance to the final challenge, the rescue of a mock hostage in a simulated terrorist kidnaping, and accomplish the task while their male peers fail miserably. The two women graduate, earn a special merit award, and are assigned to work together in Los Angeles.

It is very apparent that DeWitt and Zuckerman place more importance in their own friendship than they do in their romantic relationships with men. DeWitt ends her relationship with a male trainee, Brent, on their first date, after he speaks poorly of Zuckerman. At the film's end, Zuckerman is elated to learn that she will be stationed with DeWitt in Los Angeles, and is not at all bothered that she and Howard Butz, the man she is somewhat romantically paired with, will be separated (indeed, there is almost a tone of relief in her voice).

While there is no heartache at the end of these romances, there is great concern when the women are almost separated. When Zuckerman announces her intention to quit the program, DeWitt explains that she is counting on her for help, and tells Zuckerman that she can also help her. What is established here is the women's dependence upon each other. They are not just friends, but vital assistants in and instructors of each other's success. The women are not dependent upon men, but upon each other. Each begins to succeed in her area of weakness only after the two begin to help and depend upon each other.

"Socially it is the prerogative of men to gaze at women and the requirement of women to avert our eyes in submission." This is how Arbuthnot and Seneca explain the objectification of women via the male gaze. The issue of sexually objectifying male gazes is not problematic in Feds, namely because such gazes are absent. Male gazes are present, however, and sexually objectifying gazes are replaced with gazes which connote women as mentally and/or physically inferior to men. The power of these gazes is subverted, however, in various ways. The first such gaze is countered by the point-of-view shot of the female character. As DeWitt waits her turn to be interviewed for admission to the training program, we see one male applicant staring at her. His stare (like the stares of the men we see in DeWitt's subjective shots) singles her out as an anomaly among FBI applicants: she is a woman applying for a position in a field dominated by men. She becomes aware of the stare and returns the look, and we experience her returned look twice through point-of-view shots. She also resists her objectification verbally, sarcastically asking the staring men, "You guys in a gang or something?" Never do we hear such a resistant retort from Dorothy or Lorelei, nor do we ever see their return looks through point-of-view shots.

These objectifying looks are also resisted, even defeated, with events of the narrative. During a classroom exercise in which DeWitt and Zuckerman are shot with blank cartridges by Training Director Bilecki, there is a reverse eyeline match of Brent and another man laughing at the women's failure. Their mocking look, and its objectifying connotation that women are mental and physical inferiors to men, is defeated when the two women succeed in later, more important exercises which those men fail.

What is most outstanding about the objectifying gaze in Feds, however, is that it is very rare. Despite the women's ability to attract men (Brent asks DeWitt for a date, and Howard Butz and a sailor in a bar are attracted to Zuckerman), at no time are their entrances preceded by the ogling stares which signal so many of Dorothy and Loreiei's entrances in Gentlemen (save for the above-mentioned interview scene; that glance is resisted and returned, however). Even when DeWitt enters in a dress for her date with Brent (the only time she "masquerades" as the male definition of "beautiful woman," or "visual spectacle"), her entrance is not shown as Brent's eyeline match. She enters in a long shot which also includes Zuckerman and Brent, whose back is turned towards her. Furthermore, DeWitt's construction as visual spectacle in this scene is de-emphasized because the film spectator is allowed to see her in this costume before Brent arrives. The spectator does not see DeWitt through the stares of a male character. She is therefore not formally established as a "sight" for male pleasure.

It is also of importance to note that the truest examples of sexual objectification are perpetrated by the women. Zuckerman's treatment of the sailor she dances with during a night out is motivated only by her sexual attraction to him. She identifies him only in terms of her sexual interest, and her conversation with him -- a conversation which she dominates -- is limited to the same. DeWitt reduces Brent to a sexual object while the two women are talking with Butz in the cafeteria. After Butz identifies Brent with a summary of his background, DeWitt views him in a subjective shot and says "He's cute," apparently disregarding the more personal description just given by Butz.

Arbuthnot and Seneca cite the costuming of Dorothy and Lorelei as a way those characters avoid sexual objectification. While the costuming argument is not very convincing for Gentlemen (the two characters wear clinging outfits which accentuate their famous breasts, and the dresses they wear in the opening number are slit high to expose their legs), it applies well to Feds. Neither DeWitt nor Zuckerman wears costumes which transform them into sexual objects. While the two are often seen in apparel connoted "female" by patriarchal culture (skirts, earrings), they are never clothed in articles which are designed to draw attention to their physicalness in the way Dorothy and Lorelei's clothing does. Zuckerman dresses conservatively; when she wears skirts they are the type associated with formal business attire. DeWitt also wears such skirts, but more often is seen in slacks, t-shirt, and leather jacket. While the t-shirt is clinging and accentuates her breasts, it is more connotative of "tough marine than of "sex object" (this connotation is supported by the similar costuming of male military characters in other films: Robert Duvall's characters in The Great Santini or Apocalypse Now, for example). Furthermore, DeWitt does not wear jewelry, nor does she ever appear 'made-up" (beyond the make-up used to make DeMornay look so "natural"). Even the dress she wears on her date with Brent, while being the most connotative of "visual object," is far from revealing (its color -- black -- also prevents the use of suggestive shadows, and thus satisfies another of the criteria listed by Arbuthnot and Seneca).

Character posture is also cited by Arbuthnot and Seneca. They claim that Dorothy, at least, conveys an air of authority with her confident stance. This authoritativeness is offset, however, by the more frequent sultry maneuvers she uses while walking past the men on the dock, or while performing in the musical numbers. Such movement is even more typical of Lorelei. DeWitt and Zuckerman, however, never carry themselves in such a seductive manner. Indeed, DeWitt is often seen almost slouching, with her hands in her pockets or her thumbs in the belt loops of her slacks. Even when "masquerading" (on her date with Brent), she does not adopt a posture which connotes "to-be-looked-at-ness" (to use Laura Mulvey's famous term [note 3]).

Arbuthnot and Seneca also claim that the two women in Gentlemen resist objectification by controlling their own space and by invading the space of men. DeWitt and Zuckerman also control their own space: the first time DeWitt enters their room, she does so without knocking, and no men enter their room without their permission (whether that permission is explicit, as when Zuckerman tells Butz to enter, or implied, as when Zuckerman opens the door for Brent). The two also freely enter and disrupt male space. While investigating the theft of some navy blankets, they walk uninvited into a male dormitory at a college and shut the television off while several men are watching it. They then control those men during interrogation with threats of imprisonment. Later, they enter a predominantly male night club and cause chaos by unplugging the sound system, then restore order by firing several gunshots above the heads of the crowd. The two also invade the male space of the conference room used by the instructors as the hideout during the simulated kidnaping. Here, their entrance is just as disruptive as the previous ones, as they enter by breaking through a window. Zuckerman also invades the personal space of the sailor in the bar by reaching under his shirt and feeling his chest.

Activity, too, claim Arbuthnot and Seneca, is a way in which Dorothy and Lorelei subvert objectification. They cite the scene in which the women drug Malone and remove his pants. This approach is far more applicable to Feds, however, for the quantity and success of the actions of DeWitt and Zuckerman far exceed those of Dorothy and Lorelei. DeWitt is shown constantly to be capable of action: she is expert with a handgun and has no trouble overcoming her (male) practice arrest partner. The two successfully capture a gang of bank robbers on their own time. The two are praised by Bilecki for their work on the stolen blanket case, after the male trainees decide the matter is too insignificant. They act on two men who try to assault them in the street (they kick them in the genitals), and their action prevents those men from acting upon them. The two formulate and enact the successful plan to rescue the mock hostage, while the male trainees hastily head for careless failure. The two also collaborate on lesser accomplishments, like defeating a male trainee in a pizza eating contest.

DeWitt and Zuckerman are also active in their heterosexual romances. Zuckerman is the aggressor in her experiences with the sailor and Butz. She initiates the action: she brings the sailor to the dance floor and actively feels his chest, and she invites Butz to watch a television program and is the first to initiate a kiss. DeWitt, while not the instigator of her relationship with Brent, takes an active role by ordering wine for Brent, and then determines the future of the relationship by ending it on the first date.

What makes their actions so much more important than those of Dorothy and Lorelei, however, is the fact that only their successes are emphasized. Although we see them fail (DeWitt on written tests, Zuckerman in physical trials), we also see them succeed. We are never shown any of the men's successes, only their failures. Indeed, the male trainees are portrayed as easily-duped buffoons blinded by their own machismo. They fail because they do not heed the advise of the two women. Both men and women are instigators of action in Feds, but only women are instigators of successful action.

All of these things help DeWitt and Zuckerman resist objectification by males. They do not, however, entirely free the feminist text from the confines of patriarchal culture. Various narrative and formal elements exist which anchor the feminist text to the patriarchy. What is remarkable about this film, though, is the great extent to which these elements are subverted. The feminist text is given so much attention that the film's patriarchal construct is significantly obscured.

The most problematic of the narrative elements is the presence of Howard Butz, who anchors the actions of DeWitt and Zuckerman to the patriarchy merely by being part of them. DeWitt and Zuckerman are not allowed to look around the cafeteria in subjective shots until Butz sits down with them and points to various people in the room. The two women do not make the final rescue attempt alone -- they are assisted by Howard, whose idea to misinform the other men gives the women more time to fulfill their objective. Furthermore, the two women are not allowed to enter the male space of the hideout until Howard rushes through the door and secures the location. It is implied here that, while DeWitt and Zuckerman are successful in their actions, only with male assistance can they act and succeed.

This problem becomes almost insignificant, though, with consideration of Howard's portrayal. As his last name foretells, Butz is the victim of much derision (the "butt" of jokes). His masculinity is constantly in question. Like Zuckerman, he excels in the more passive arena of academics. His physical ability is slight. He is lampooned on the obstacle course as the other men drop heavy bags on him. He is singled out by the arrest instructor and then easily overcome. He is unable to get through the front door of the academy until DeWitt opens the door and frees his stuck suitcase. He makes the decision to follow the women on the hostage exercise and then asks them for a plan. Although he kisses Zuckerman passionately, he does so only after she kisses him first. It is only after the kiss -- after he has been empowered by a woman -- that he becomes physically potent and kicks in the door during the rescue. While he is present during the final rescue, he is not present during the women's bank robbery arrest or during the stolen blanket case. On this narrative level, Butz does not pose a threat to the two women and is not a major influence on their actions. Indeed, he is virtually dependent upon them. He is merely a token male presence which links the narrative to the patriarchy without making that connection explicit.

(A more Freudian reading could posit that Butz is a castrated male. Castration is a recurring motif in the film as a way DeWitt and Zuckerman disable several male opponents: both kick the street assailants in the genitals and escape unharmed, and such a kick is the only way Zuckerman is able to overpower her practice arrest partner, Brent. Butz's entrance to the academy demonstrates castration when his suitcase, released from the door by DeWitt, recoils and hits him in the genitals. DeWitt, therefore, removes any threat Butz may pose with this symbolic castration. Without the phallus, he is no longer a man holding exclusive franchise on power and action, and is equal to the female characters).

The film also makes formal connections with the patriarchy, but these connections are also greatly subverted. Several segments are introduced by a male character, and the implication is that the space being introduced is male space. Often this introduction subverts itself. The first shot of some of these segments is a close-up of a "maleness"-connoting prop accompanied by a man's voice (an interviewer's hands holding DeWitt's file, or a gun shop sign). The following shot, however, is not a close-up of that man, but of one of the women or of that man and both women (in the interviewer's office this is a tilt up to DeWitt, in the gun shop it is a medium-long three-shot of the shop owner, DeWitt, and Zuckerman). At other times, the formal connections to patriarchy are simply subverted under the narrative emphasis on the success of the women's actions. In any case, nowhere does the filmic technique introduce these women as the sexual spectacle into which Dorothy and Lorelei are transformed by Gentlemen's male eyeline matches.

The feminist text is also subject to conflicts generated by the film's ideological statements. This film's ideology is not as overtly stated as that of Gentlemen, however, and this helps preserve the feminist text. It might be inferred that the film's main ideological announcement is that women can only be successful in a man's world by adopting male characteristics (surprisingly similar to that of Gentlemen). This is implicit in the more masculine (through costume, posture, military involvement), and favored portrayal of DeWitt (she is featured at the beginning with insight to her background, and at the end with her unique costume and closing statement) and the apparent ease with which she conducts herself in the world of action. It may also be inferred that the two women abandon their heterosexual romances in favor of an implicit lesbian relationship which, in its sexual interest in women, makes them "more like men." This ideology, then, favors the abandoning of femaleness as a useless and unproductive state of being.

It is also true that DeWitt and Zuckerman, like Dorothy and Lorelei, succeed only within the confines of the patriarchy. While they are the two most successful trainees of the academy, they are nonetheless trainees of the academy. Any work done outside the restrictions of the patriarchal institution (the FBI) is punished, no matter how successful that action is. When the two trainees stop the bank robbery while in town on leave, they are reprimanded by Bilecki for not adhering to strict FBI procedure (which includes, explains Bilecki, calling for back-up assistance, presumably male agents). Praise is bestowed upon them only when they work as "by the book" FBI agents, that is, as agents of the patriarchy (during the blanket theft case or the final hostage exercise). That praise, in turn, is given to them only by the FBI/patriarchy. Only within the male order can these women succeed and find acceptance.

As stifling as these ideological conflicts appear, however, they are recuperated by a narrative which stresses female success and the apparent ineptitude of male peers. While the film implicitly advocates "maleness" and the patriarchy, it explicitly lampoons machismo and the need to contain women through heterosexual romance. What is most featured in Feds is the close relationship between DeWitt and Zuckerman, a relationship that favors the women's dependence upon each other, not men, and the ability of those women to act and succeed. The refusal of those women to be sexually objectified, the formal strategies through which the film allows that refusal, the absence of visible male success, and the dependence of a male character (Butz) on the two female characters places a feminist text in the foreground and makes Feds a fascinating exception to the Hollywood model.


Note 1: Arbuthnot, Lucie and Gail Seneca. "Pre-Text and Text in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." 1980.

Note 2: Arbuthnot, Lucie and Gail Seneca. "Pre-Text and Text in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." 1980.

Note 3: Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Reprinted in Feminism and Film Theory, edited by Constance Penley. (New York: Routledge, Chapman, and Hall, Inc. 1988), p. 62.