Saturday, February 21, 2015

you don't have to wear that dress tonight

I was saying something about Satine's introduction, performing for the crowd of mostly men in the Moulin Rouge. I think I might skip past the rest of Lacan for now and move on to the feminist critique...

Vladimir Propp (1968) lists among the basic dramatis personae the princess. Serving as the princess in Moulin Rouge!, Satine is "a sought for person" and she "cannot be exactly delineated" from her father (p. 79). As I have already said above--

If you haven't been reading this blog the last few days, you should know that much of what I've been writing about Moulin Rouge! I am deliberately repurposing for a paper for my media theory class... or vice versa. Hence, this "above" which actually refers to something I said yesterday or the day before, or maybe both. Just bear with me.

--Zidler is just one male figure in this film standing in for the patriarchal order over Satine and her body. Quite specifically, he serves as her father, especially in an old fashioned sense, deciding who she will or will not "marry." Propp tells us, "Most often it is the father who assigns difficult tasks due to hostile feelings toward the suitor" (p. 80). It is Zidler who turns Satine away from Christian to finally be with the Duke, lest the Moulin Rouge be lost. But, Propp also tells us, "He also frequently punishes (or orders punished) the false hero" (ibid). It is Zidler who punches the Duke when he picks up Warner's gun. Propp's princess, then, is an object to be controlled by one male--her father--and pursued by at least one other--the hero and, here, the false hero--

Or should I characterize the Duke as the villain? In usual cinematic terms, the Duke is the villain, but in Propp's terms, he seems more the false hero... I guess I'll figure it out later. In the meantime, this was leading to feminism.

We have already looked at Satine's role in psychoanalytic terms, but White (1998) tells us, "feminist thinking" can use psychoanalysis "to understand women's exclusion from the realms of language, law, and desire" (p. 117)*. Satine is excluded from language; while she clearly has some idea that she is sick, she is not aware that she is dying--the Doctor has told Zidler, but Zidler does not tell Satine until he needs to get control over her. She is excluded from law; she has no agency in her life, except in secret and, arguably, the film punishes her for that. Similarly, she is excluded from desire.

But, the women in the audience are not. Indeed, they are invited to desire Christian or Satine. White argues, "Making a 'trans-sex identification' with the agent of desire and narrative is habitual for women" (p. 119)*. Mulvey (1989a) cites Freud's "concept of 'masculinity' in women, the identification triggered by the logic of a narrative grammar, and the ego's desire to fantasise itself in a certain, active, manner" to argue that "as desire is a given cultural materiality in a text, for women (from childhood onwards) trans-sex identification is a habit that very easily becomes second nature" (p. 33). That is, female audience members should have no trouble identifying with the male lead. This should be expected when film is dominated by male creators as well as male characters; what choice to women in the audience have but to identify, at least some of the time, with the male hero? White cites Clover (1992) in suggesting that "contemporary horror films encourage their young male spectators to identify with the female victim" (p. 118)*. Clover describes the moment that the "Final Girl" in the slasher film "becomes her own savior... and the moment she becomes a hero is the moment that the male viewer gives up the last pretense of male identification" (p. 60). I contend, the same process occurs in the romantic film--the female audience member can identify with the pursued object--here, Satine--or she can identify with the male pursuer--here, Christian. On some level, she could do both at the same time. The female audience member can identify with Satine--"the fascination of looking... collid[ing] with... inklings of self-awareness" (Mulvey, 1989b, p. 308). Or, she can identify with Christian and uphold the patriarchal order.

All that is not to say that Moulin Rouge! is a feminist film, but in White's (1998) terms, we can put the "axis of analysis" on the representation of gender and sexuality. As a romantic film, Moulin Rouge! exists for a primarily female audience and yet it offers us a seemingly passive female lead--Propp's princess. But, for most of the film, Satine does avoid male control--arguably--to be with Christian. I say "arguably" because simply by taking part in the usual heteronormative coupling, Satine is giving up some control. Still, she does make her own decisions until Zidler finally reveals to her that she is dying and then she finally chooses the Duke to save the Moulin Rouge and to save "Spectacular Spectacular" and to save Christian. But, even after she has been forced into that choice, in the end, it is Satine who begins her and Christian's secret song. Note of course that, in the initial self-reflexive presentation to the Duke about the new play, it was Satine who suggested that her character hears the Sitar player's song; while it is Christian's idea eventually, she has already planted its seed, and it is she who brings it back at the climax of the film. Her agency drives the emotional climax and the (albeit short-lived) happy ending. So, while Moulin Rouge! may not be a particularly feminist film, the feminist lens tells us something about courtship ritual, about patriarchal control over the female body, and the potential for female agency in the face of these things.

Works Cited

Clover, C.J. (1992). Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mulvey, L. (1989a). Afterthoughts on 'Visual pleasure and narrative cinema' inspired by King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946). In Visual and Other Pleasures (29-38). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Mulvey, L. (1989b). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. Screen 16(3), 6-18.*

Propp, V. (1968). Morphology of the Folk Tale. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

White, P. (1998). Feminism and film. In J. Hill & P. Gibson (Eds.), Oxford Guide to Film Studies (117-131).* New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

* note: page numbers in the text may not match the page numbers in these sources because, for the purposes of my paper, I'm citing the page numbers from the copy the instructor provided and, for the purposes of proper citations, I have found the original source. The Works Cited entry should be the original source.

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