Monday, April 10, 2006

My Darling… Misogynist?

(spoiler alert for the film Rebecca)

Dear Reader,

Sometimes it sucks to be a feminist. What a killjoy!

I was strolling idly along the Internet one day when I read a comment about the movie Rebecca (based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier and directed by Alfred Hitchcock) which called the film "misogynist."



No! Tell me it ain't so! Don't break my heart like this!

Rebecca was one of my favorite films as a teen and I had a wick-ed crush on Larry (Laurence Olivier) who portrays Maxim de Winter.

But Max murders his wife and gets away with it.

Yep, that's right, and I never once blinked an eye over it. Nope. As a viewer, I'm persuaded that Max has every right to strike his adulterous wife (Rebecca). I'm convinced she deserves to die, and thus, his "death-blow," which we don’t actually witness, seems acceptable.

To "soften the blow," the film implies pretty heavily that Rebecca's "asking for it," cause she's dying of cancer, but since Max has no clue about her condition, this doesn't let him off the hook, does it? And we don't actually have Rebecca’s own word on her “death-wish” (cause, oops, she's dead).

So… is this kind of husband/wife violence acceptable in our heroes?

In truth, I still adore this movie. I'm a fan of "gothic," and the Criterion version offers some delightful goodies, such as screen tests of Vivien Leigh, Anne Baxter, Loretta Young, Margaret Sullavan, and Joan Fontaine. Larry, who was married to Vivien at the time, wanted his wife to get the lead role and championed her strongly, but Hitchcock wouldn't bend, and if you watch Vivien’s audition, it's pretty clear that Hitchcock was right. Vivien was primed for Scarlet, not our plain and unnamed narrator here.

But back to misogyny.

No! Do I really have to go back to that crummy place? Cause I've seen quite a few romantic heroes mistreat their wives. Rochester hides his crazy wife Bertha from daylight. Heathcliff abuses his silly spouse Isabella. Yet, I'm drawn to the iconic stature of these fictional men.

And since they were written in days gone by, I can certainly view them in that light.

Still I wonder...

Am I so accustomed to the "wife" being the plot device that I don't think twice about her humanity?

32 repartee:

Anonymous holly wrote...

Hmm.... I do think it's pretty easy to argue that Hitchcock is dreadfully misogynist--just watch Vertigo if you have any doubts on that score--but like you, Frankengirl, I also dig Rebecca, and accept that she was a villainous bit of nastiness. I do this partly because Joan Fontaine plays the new wife (whose name I forget!) so sympathetically.

Like all your questions, this is a good one. I'm going to have to think about this some more.

4/10/2006 10:54 AM  
Blogger Panacea wrote...

Sometimes it sucks to be a feminist. What a killjoy! I have to agree with you.

I'm not sure what to say because on one hand I know that you're completely right, but on the other hand, Rebecca is one of my favourite books (I havn't seen the movie yet but have heard raving reviews about it)

But Max murders his wife and gets away with it. *sigh* how true. But I can't help feeling as if he pays for it. He does lose the one thing he loves more than anything in the world, Manderley. I'm not sure whether they show this in the movie, but in the book, Manderly is set on fire and Maxim and his wife retreat to a foreign country. Its a sort of exile and a punishment for him. I can't help feeling sorry for his wife, it's as if she got tricked into the whole marriage to a murderer deal.

You should read Rebecca's Tale by Sally Beauman which is a sequal and a prequal of sorts to the original book by Daphne du Maurier. Its a great book because it kind of put Rebecca in a more sympathetic light without changting her original character, but by just narrating a section of the book from her point of view. Its a lovely book for Rebecca sympathizers.

I don't think I liked it too much when I read it then because I was younger and enamoured by Maxim, but its the same reason that I could not even make myself read Wild Sargasso Sea. Now when I think about it, its only fair that we get to know Rebecca or Bertha from their point of view and not only through what Maxim and Rochester say.

4/10/2006 11:28 AM  
Blogger The Poodle's Friend wrote...

AAARGH! SPOILERS! I'm afraid I must avoid this post like the plague. REBECCA DIES? SHE HAS CANCER? NOOOOOOO!

But perhaps, I'm overreacting. Please tell me I am, and that the movie is still very much watchable! Pretty please!

4/10/2006 12:35 PM  
Blogger mysticgypsy wrote...

Hi Frankengirl
Bertha's uncouth(?!) nature is contrasted to Jane's goodness, and Isabella's superficiality is contrasted with Catherine's fiery nature.
The presence of the "other" woman (who as Holly said is portrayed more sympathetically by the author) makes is harder to view the "wife" in isolation.
I believe we would have sympathized much more with Bertha's faults if Jane was not in the picture.
Because everything rests on contrasts in art, I believe it is no wonder this carries on to real life. It is a good question to wonder if this is necessarily a good thing (in real life) as it might be in art.

But is Life not Art?

4/10/2006 1:03 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hi, Holly!

“I do think it's pretty easy to argue that Hitchcock is dreadfully misogynist--just watch Vertigo if you have any doubts on that score”

Yes! And I remember reading that Hitchcock had phobias toward women. Still…I do love his work.

“I also dig Rebecca, and accept that she was a villainous bit of nastiness. I do this partly because Joan Fontaine plays the new wife (whose name I forget!) so sympathetically.”

Actually, the “new wife” played by Joan Fontaine is never given a name. She is the first person “I” who narrates the novel!

And yes, like you, I’ve always accepted that Rebecca herself is a “villain” as you say. And I can’t help thinking that Vivien Leigh would have been the perfect (unseen) Rebecca! But Rebecca never kills or threatens to kill anyone. And so lately, I’ve been wondering just how hard do you have to hit a woman for her to fall over like that?

Eek.

Still… the scene isn’t shown and the audience isn’t supposed to dwell on it like this, but ‘tis my job, of course, to dwell, hehe!

4/10/2006 1:07 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hello to Italy! - :)

Panacea -

“I'm not sure what to say because on one hand I know that you're completely right, but on the other hand, Rebecca is one of my favourite books (I haven't seen the movie yet but have heard raving reviews about it)”

It’s still one of my favorite movies and I definitely recommend it. It’s so visually interesting, and yeah, I’m a super-sucker for the “gothic” and romantic storyline.

As Holly notes, Joan Fontaine gives a perfect performance. She’s tremendously sympathetic. It’s hard for an actress to offer such naiveté and vulnerability without coming across as a nincompoop, but she manages to pull it off gracefully.

“But I can't help feeling as if he pays for it. He does lose the one thing he loves more than anything in the world, Manderley.”

Yes, but he also gets “rewarded” with his new and devoted wife.

However, what you note is *really important*, because I suspect all these things (the exile, destruction of Manderly, etc.) demonstrate that Daphne du Maurier must have known that she needed to off-set Max’s blow with a several “blows” back at him.

Thanks for the recommendation of Rebecca's Tale by Sally Beauman!

“I don't think I liked [Rebecca’s Tale] too much when I read it then because I was younger and enamored by Maxim, but its the same reason that I could not even make myself read Wild Sargasso Sea.”

Yes, I have the exact same issue! But MysticGypsy has convinced me that I must read WSS - and so I’ve been thinking a lot lately about these “wife devices” - the women behind them.

TPF -

I nearly stuck a *spoiler alert* on top, just for you!!! :P

“But perhaps, I'm overreacting."

Er, well, I think I’m the one “overreacting,” hehe! Not you! And as I’ve noted to Panacea, this film is very, very (and might I add, very!) watchable!

I still think it’s a great film in so many ways.

Your spoiler,
FG

4/10/2006 1:23 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hi, MysticGypsy!

“The presence of the "other" woman (who as Holly said is portrayed more sympathetically by the author) makes is harder to view the "wife" in isolation”

I really like how you speak of viewing the “wife in isolation” because I think that’s exactly what I’m attempting here. Removing the POV of the (biased?) protagonist. If we look at Rebecca herself, alone – is she so “evil” to warrant physical violence?

“Bertha's uncouth nature is contrasted to Jane's goodness, and Isabella's superficiality is contrasted with Catherine's fiery nature…Because everything rests on contrasts in art, I believe it is no wonder this carries on to real life.”

Ah, you bring up such an excellent point here! How women are so often portrayed in comparison or contrast to each other – with the “evil” of the one accentuating the “goodness” of the other (and this can create the illusion that women may only be one extreme or the other, nowhere in between).

Yet, as you note, this compare/contrast is quite useful and so powerful in Art. But worrisome, perhaps? If it carries into real life?

4/10/2006 1:52 PM  
Blogger Cristina wrote...

Would you feel the same way if the "injured" ones were men? Or do you suppose you're only meant to feel bad about them - though you don't - because they're women?

The joy of literature is that you find yourself experiencing things and thinking thoughts that you'd never do in real life. So, as long as we all keep in mind that it's fiction, that in real life we more than probably wouldn't accept it, however redeeming the circumstances, I think that's okay.

4/10/2006 1:54 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hi, Cristina!

“The joy of literature is that you find yourself experiencing things and thinking thoughts that you'd never do in real life. So, as long as we all keep in mind that it's fiction, that in real life we more than probably wouldn't accept it, however redeeming the circumstances, I think that's okay.”

Yes!!! I think you’re so right that we can enjoy this film purely as fiction, as a “fairy tale” in a way, in which Rebecca is the Wicked Witch.

Rebecca never takes physical form in the story and her voice is never heard. And so, she is more symbolic than real. And as a symbol, she’s powerful and threatening, and just like Bertha of Jane Eyre, she gives us a PLOT.

Hmm, since you ask: “Would you feel the same way if the "injured" ones were men?”, I’m wondering…

Do we find this scenario in gender reversal – a sympathetic heroine who physically injures a man (who is not physically abusing her)???

:)

4/10/2006 2:34 PM  
Blogger Charlie wrote...

Just sniffing around, don't mind me.

4/10/2006 5:33 PM  
Blogger actonbell wrote...

As usual, you raise a great question, and have an interesting discussion going:) I've never seen Rebecca, but it sounds similar to movies I have seen, which leads me to think that I've become accustomed to perceiving THE WIFE as a plot device. And men are still the subjects and women are still usually the objects. And thinking this definitely sucks.
Mysticgypsy makes a good point in that women are usually viewed in comparison to other women--ask if we're cars or some other commodity which one would compare before selecting, instead of individuals with unique stories.
However, I do feel that when reading or viewing art from an earlier time, we have to let some of this go, or risk missing to much of our collective past, and being poorer for that.It's important for people to know what's happened in the past--maybe especially if it was bad.

4/10/2006 6:04 PM  
Blogger actonbell wrote...

Oh, I do wish I could edit spelling errors on comments!

4/10/2006 6:06 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Admiral, are you sniffing around for misogyny, murder or, er, cat poo? Or are you trying to tell me that something very smelly steered your pooper scooper over here, hehe! - :P

4/10/2006 6:07 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

ActonBell – Hello there!

“And men are still the subjects and women are still usually the objects. And thinking this definitely sucks.”

Yes! I may be flying off on a tangent here, but your comment has made me consider Jane Austen and how women are often choosing between men (potential husbands) in her novels, but I don’t believe the “wrong choice” gets punished (at least not physically).

Maybe Holly (or another Janeite) will correct me on this?

Whereas, it seems women are more often physically punished. The Wicked Witch melts in the The Wizard of Oz. The step-sisters get their eyes plucked out in Cinderella. I’m drawing a blank on men getting physically punished in the same manner. Perhaps someone will enlighten me!

“However, I do feel that when reading or viewing art from an earlier time, we have to let some of this go, or risk missing to much of our collective past, and being poorer for that.”

What a great point! One of the very reasons I enjoy the gothic genre is that these novels invite me into another time and place! So I would hardly wish to toss such novels because of the accepted chauvinism of the time, etc. I would definitely feel “poorer” for it - :)

It's important for people to know what's happened in the past--maybe especially if it was bad.”

I love this line - because some are tempted to re-write history into a happy and blameless story, and I think you touch upon the danger in not looking back; forgetting; or trying to hide something ugly under the rug, that will remain there, regardless, whether we admit to it or not.

P.S. Sorry for the Rebecca spoilers!!! And typos, alas, are inevitable in these comment boxes - ;)

4/10/2006 6:40 PM  
Blogger mysticgypsy wrote...

"I’m drawing a blank on men getting physically punished in the same manner. Perhaps someone will enlighten me!"

Why, Rochester of course!

:)

4/10/2006 6:46 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

MysticGypsy -

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!

Yes! Silly me! Rochester! Edward! Neddy!

And now, of course, we all know why I adore Charlotte Bronte so - cause she knows how to throw a wallop at her very own heroes, hehe - ;)

Thank you, dear Enlightener…

4/10/2006 6:55 PM  
Anonymous Holly wrote...

Hi Frankengirl--

However, what you note is *really important*, because I suspect all these things (the exile, destruction of Manderly, etc.) demonstrate that Daphne du Maurier must have known that she needed to off-set Max’s blow with a several “blows” back at him.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS!!!! (though I will add that I think this movie is good enough to watch even if you know how it's going to turn out)

I agree with this. I think we accept the movie and its system of punishment and rewards because we want to see justice done: it was wrong for Max to suffer at the hands of Rebecca and her lousy lover Jack (so wonderfully played by George Sanders--he was also fabulous in All About Eve!). And it was wrong of him to strike her, but she was A) going to die of cancer anyway and B) had a malevolent plot to take Manderly from him (or am I making that up? Something involving the fact that she was pregnant by Jack when she wasn't, but was going to get the house anyway? It's been a while since I've seen it) so justice is taken care of on the score of her death. As for the OTHER injustice, Max's unhappiness, that is rectified when he gets the great new wife, so the audience feels that overall, justice has been served.

Hmm. That's kind of twisted, isn't it.

Spoilers over.

I really like how you speak of viewing the “wife in isolation” because I think that’s exactly what I’m attempting here. Removing the POV of the (biased?) protagonist. If we look at Rebecca herself, alone – is she so “evil” to warrant physical violence?

Hmm. Probably not.

Because everything rests on contrasts in art, I believe it is no wonder this carries on to real life.”

It's not just art that requires constrast--it's ethics and philosophy. Basic yin and yang stuff. Contrast shows up in art because it exists first of all in the world of nature: night and day, hot and cold.

Nonetheless, Mysticgypsy makes a good point, and Frankengirl, I agree with where you take it:

Ah, you bring up such an excellent point here! How women are so often portrayed in comparison or contrast to each other – with the “evil” of the one accentuating the “goodness” of the other (and this can create the illusion that women may only be one extreme or the other, nowhere in between).

When you ask,
Do we find this scenario in gender reversal – a sympathetic heroine who physically injures a man (who is not physically abusing her)???

I can't think of a single instance, aside, of course, from Rochester. But I can think of several instances where a woman kills a man who has been beating her.

your comment has made me consider Jane Austen and how women are often choosing between men (potential husbands) in her novels, but I don’t believe the “wrong choice” gets punished (at least not physically).

Maria Bertram is punished for marrying Mr. Rushworth: she marries a man she despises and can't be faithful to, and that earns her a miserable life shut away with Aunt Norris. Fanny Price's mother marries a man whose sensibilities aren't refined, so she lives in relative squalor while her sisters are well off.

But there just aren't many murders in Austen. Remember Northanger Abbey: Austen loved gothic novels, but was more interested in deconstructing than reproducing their strategies and plots in her own work.

4/11/2006 9:15 AM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hi, Holly!

Thank you so much for your rich and detailed comment!

*SPOILERS*

“I think we accept the movie and its system of punishment and rewards because we want to see justice done: it was wrong for Max to suffer at the hands of Rebecca and her lousy lover Jack (so wonderfully played by George Sanders--he was also fabulous in All About Eve!).”

I’m SO glad you brought up George Sanders. First of all, YES, he is so marvelous in this movie. And he’s absolutely central at the end.

There’s a great scene where he basically tells Max that he’s getting away with murder because of his position in society. And despite the fact that Sanders plays the (deliciously adorable) “low-life,” these words of his are essential. They cast a shadow over Max and the whole ordeal. Is Max getting away with Murder because of Who he is?

It’s almost as if Sanders is saying—if I did that same thing in this story, I wouldn’t get away with it cause I’m the “other man,” but since you’re the ROMANTIC HERO, you can and do! Sanders is perfect!

“And it was wrong of him to strike her, but she was A) going to die of cancer anyway and B) had a malevolent plot to take Manderly from him (or am I making that up? Something involving the fact that she was pregnant by Jack when she wasn't, but was going to get the house anyway? It's been a while since I've seen it) so justice is taken care of on the score of her death.”

Okay, here are my latest thoughts on this…

The Emotional Plot Vs. The Actual Plot: The actual facts (Rebecca’s adultery and threat to give Manderly a “false” heir) does not seem a strong a reason to kill her because Max has already agreed to this. After four days of marriage, he agrees to her bargain of a loveless marriage because he’s too embarrassed to admit he made a mistake in marrying her.

However, later, he regrets this bargain, and admits to wanting to kill her (to shoot her and her lover Saunders) and get her “filth” out of his life. Again, a sexually promiscuous woman is filthy, dirty, evil.

However, since all this is told through Max’s voice, we are feeling his emotions, his remorse, not Rebecca’s. And what I think stands out for me the most now is that Max expresses so much SELF-LOATHING.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that if Romantic Heroes demonstrate enough Self-Loathing (like Rochester, too), we fall for them, because we feel they are torturing themselves beyond what’s necessary.

Ah, clearly, your comment is so rich that it has stirred up a storm of thought!!! - ;)

So, yes, in the end, I’m agreeing with you. We, the audience, do feel that justice has been served. Because we FEEL Max’s misery. We want him to be free of it.

There is one moment, however, which I find very disturbing. It’s when his new (unnamed) wife wants to save him from prison even before she knows the details. Here, we see that her love is “blind” and perhaps foolish. Of course, by this time, we are fairly blinded by love, too, and don’t want Larry to suffer anymore!

Ah, well…

4/11/2006 10:03 AM  
Blogger Janet wrote...

I think you can watch a lot of old movies and find a multitude of gasp worthy (and gag worthy) moments.

The good news is most of us can look back and objectively see why they were so wrong.

4/11/2006 9:33 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

How true, Janet! - :)

There are many films I adored in my childhood that I know weren’t “quite” feminist, and I’ll even avoid re-visiting a few because I have such nostalgia for them. But usually I find both brilliance and flaws in them, as with most things in life.

4/12/2006 8:41 AM  
Blogger niTin wrote...

I read no further than spoiler warning, so gee I really don't know what you guys are talking about here.

4/12/2006 7:21 PM  
Blogger JLB wrote...

Greetings FrankenGirl! I'm still thinking about your question (haven't seen or read Rebecca yet), but as usual your question has had me thinking all week long!

I also wanted to share this link with you (pardon my disgression from the conversation):

Nalini Singh's Weblog
http://nalinisingh.blogspot.com/
Thursday, April 13, 2006
Alpha Males & Real Life

I thought you might enjoy her question for Thursday. :)

Have a great weekend!...JLB

4/13/2006 10:07 AM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hi, niTin!

:) I can’t stop laughing over your comment!!!

4/13/2006 11:46 AM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hi, JLB!

Thank you for the link! Yes, the question there is one that arises here quite often - ;)

Enjoy your weekend, too. I look forward to more photos!

4/13/2006 11:47 AM  
Blogger Nalini Singh wrote...

Hi Frankengirl!

Going off on a tangent here - but have you noticed that the trend continues in romance today? ie. If the hero has been married before, his ex-wife must be a horrible, horrible person for one reason or another.

I know why it's done and I have no problem with it *g* but I just find it interesting that this is something that's been going on for so long in literature.

Great discussion btw!

4/13/2006 7:36 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hi, Nalini!

What an excellent question! I wish I were better qualified to answer, but I don’t read a lot of modern romance.

Based on film, there seems to be a trend of the “wrong fiancé” rather than the “wrong spouse.” Someone is about to be married to the wrong person, but the right person shows up at the last second and throws everything into chaos - ;)

Perhaps, because a spouse can become an EX-spouse much more easily today, it’s less dramatic to use the EX as a device – and a competing suitor / fiancé is used instead???

If you have noticed any trends in your current writing/reading, I’d be interesting in knowing!

Thank so much for joining our discussion! - :)

4/13/2006 8:00 PM  
Blogger Nalini Singh wrote...

Intresting point re fiance vs wife today. I can definitely see that happening when all parties are alive. But you often see the bad past wife used as a plot device when the hero is a widower!

4/14/2006 1:49 AM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hi again, Nalini!

Yes! God forbid, the widower’s first wife should have been a “normal” woman, even admirable – that creates little torment for our “hero.” I suppose we’re all “haunted” by ghosts of our past and this plot device is a natural extension of that - to some degree.

:)

4/17/2006 9:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous wrote...

I've seen the movie several times and always thought that Rebecca committed suicide in a manner that would implicate her husband as a murderer.

4/19/2006 6:51 PM  
Blogger Sarah wrote...

I never saw the movie, but I read the book when I was younger and loved it, and it never occurred to me to think 'wait a minute, he violently murdered his wife, maybe this isn't such a nice and desirable guy after all!'

I'm a lot more aware in a feminist and political way now, which is of course a very good thing, but it does ruin my enjoyment of some things. Like, I also used to adore 'Gone with the Wind' (with no feminist awareness or knowledge of American history), but when I watched it more recently I was horrified at the racist and sexist aspects.

4/20/2006 12:28 PM  
Blogger amyjames wrote...

Now I haven't seen the movie or read the book for a wee while. So I may be wrong on some points . . . and there may be some spoilers for anyone still reading without having watched the film. . .

I always felt that the book and the movie both punished Rebecca for being such a strong woman, especially in contrast to the narrator Max's second wife who is so far from being a strong indepedent woman.

But I also interpreted the murder sequence in the book as being very much controlled by Rebecca. She knows she has cancer, she knows she is probably going to suffer a protracted illness, that she is dying, and she chooses not to go that way.

She manipulates Max into killing her, knowing that his passionate nature means he will commit the crime without thinking of the consequences. So she dies quickly, relatively painlessly and in the knowledge that Max, who she despises, will most likely be hanged for having carried out the act.

Not that that lets Max off the hook. He still pulled the trigger.

But it is an interesting example of a power relationship (man with gun/victim) which seems to be turned on it's head. As I saw it Rebecca has all the power in this scene - I think it even says in the book that she dies with a triumphant smile.

4/22/2006 3:49 PM  
Blogger AH Films wrote...

I'm a huge Alfred Hitchcock fan. I have seen over 40 of his movies, most of them multiple times. Rebecca happens to be one that I've only seen once and it was quite a while ago. After reading this discussion, I think I should watch it again. You've given me lots to think about. Good stuff!

5/24/2006 8:15 PM  

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