Reel Vulnerability: Power, Pain, and Gender in Contemporary American Film and Television

Reel Vulnerability: Power, Pain, and Gender in Contemporary American Film and Television

Reel Vulnerability: Power, Pain, and Gender in Contemporary American Film and Television

Reel Vulnerability: Power, Pain, and Gender in Contemporary American Film and Television


Wonder women, G.I. Janes, and vampire slayers increasingly populate the American cultural landscape. What do these figures mean in the American cultural imagination? What can they tell us about the female body in action or in pain? Reel Vulnerability explores the way American popular culture thinks about vulnerability, arguing that our culture and our scholarship remain stubbornly invested in the myth of the helplessness of the female body.

The book examines the shifting constructions of vulnerability in the wake of the cultural upheavals of World War II, the Cold War, and 9/11, placing defenseless male bodies onscreen alongside representations of the female body in the military, in the interrogation room, and on the margins. Sarah Hagelin challenges the ways film theory and cultural studies confuse vulnerability and femaleness. Such films as G.I. Jane and Saving Private Ryan, as well as such post-9/11 television shows as Battlestar Galactica and Deadwood, present vulnerable men who demand our sympathy, abused women who don't want our pity, and images of the body in pain that do not portray weakness.

Hagelin's intent is to help scholarship catch up to the new iconographies emerging in theaters and in living rooms--images that offer viewers reactions to the suffering body beyond pity, identification with the bleeding body beyond masochism, and feminist images of the female body where we least expect to find them.


In the first season of the Baltimore cop drama The Wire (HBO, 2002–2008), police officer Kima Greggs recalls her experience as a rookie cop. “You’re in your radio car alone, working your post. Most women aren’t getting out of that car—not without side partners showing up. They’re intimidated, physically.” Kima’s description of being “straight-out-of-the-academy-type scared” accurately captures the uncomfortable cocktail of fear and pain that has been at the heart of cinematic depictions of women’s difference. The calculation Kima ascribes to “most women” is the advice patriarchal culture gives all women: don’t get out of the car; don’t jog by yourself; don’t walk outside after dark. In response to the cultural imperatives that ask women to stay scared in order to avoid injury, Kima offers a surprising solution. “I wasn’t about to stay scared. You know, you get your ass kicked once or twice, you realize it’s not the end of the world, right? Most of the women, they don’t want to believe that. Most of the men, too—they don’t even want to go there.” Kima’s bracing insight—that certain kinds of pain don’t end the world—remains something that we, as feminists and film critics, haven’t wanted to know.

This book argues that our ideas about vulnerability reside in bodies, but they also shape perception. Why do we think of women’s and children’s bodies as especially vulnerable? Doing so has enabled important antiviolence and antirape work, but the discourses that construct vulnerability also work to reify whiteness, infantilize women, and hide a more widespread vulnerability. Traditionally, vulnerability has been constructed onscreen in a way that valorizes patriarchy, or at least hides its ideologies. If women think of themselves as especially vulnerable, they will be more compliant to a system that claims to protect them. We must name the thing in order to see and then dismantle it. But it is also my contention that popular culture is richer, more nuanced, and more full of progressive possibilities than we sometimes know or acknowledge, particularly in big-budget middlebrow films like G.I. Jane and Saving Private Ryan that are often assumed to parrot dominant ideologies. I trace the cinematic construction of vulnerability onscreen, arguing that two competing models of vulnerability—sentimental and resistant—structure the way we think about men, about women, and about our shared vulnerability. The readings that follow, of westerns, war films, and other fictions of the body in danger or pain, reveal the logics of paternalism, erasure, and replacement that . . .

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