Academic journal article The Upstart Crow

Desi "Was a Ho": Ocular (Re)proof and the Story of O

Academic journal article The Upstart Crow

Desi "Was a Ho": Ocular (Re)proof and the Story of O

Article excerpt

In Dimitri Buchowetzki's 1922 silent film adaptation of Othello, Desdemona is by and large silent, choosing not to engage with either her father's brutish bullying or her new husband's abrupt abduction of her. Instead, she hides in Othello's shadow until she can find what she thinks is safe haven beneath his cloak and his legal status as her husband. While facing Brabantio, the Duke, and the Venetian court, Desdemona literally becomes the femme couverte (the covered woman) (1) whose voice, body, and legal status are subsumed by her husband--a "covering" mirrored in the violent final scene where Othello's substantial form looms above his wife's small lifeless body.

While it might be tempting to attribute Desdemona's passivity to the ubiquity of the damsel in distress motif in contemporary melodrama, not all silent movie heroines are silenced; Asta Neilsen (Hamlet, 1921), Francesca Bertini (Cordelia, 1910; Juliet, 1912), and Theda Bara (Juliet, 1916) are just a few of the strong women who find voices on the soundless screen. (2) In the 1922 Othello, Ika yon Lenceffy's Desdemona is stifled by the film's self-consciously expressionist visuals and its tendency to treat her, not as a character in her own right, but as the site/sight of conflict between Werner Krauss's Iago and Emil Jannings's Othello.

Tim Blake Nelson's O (2001)--a present-day retelling of Othello which offers a restored version of the Buchowetzki film as a bonus in the two-disc deluxe DVD edition--presents a similarly muted yet highly conspicuous Desdemona figure in the form of Desi Brable (Julia Stiles). (3) Relocated to a contemporary setting--an American high school--and divorced from Shakespeare's early modern language and culture, O seems to offer the possibility for an exploration of postmodern gender dynamics and an examination of violence as a reaction to female sexual and lexical expression. Nelson's film seems deliberately constructed to critique patriarchy and its emphasis on whiteness, wealth, and women as subordinates. Yet, regardless of its intentions, O repeatedly reinvokes patriarchal values through its cliched representations of race and sex and its overaccentuation of the visual.

Scholars such as Barbara Hodgdon and Frederick Luis Aldama have delved into the ways that O "loads the representational deck, relying on strategies that approach, even as they also work to overturn, familiar [racial] stereotypes," but few critics have dealt with how the adaptation/update reinforces gender stereotypes. (4) Instead of taking up Gregory M. Colon Semenza's call for fuller analysis of the film's "complex, problematic" (5) female characters, critics have been content to simply label O an example of"Shakesploi" (6)--a term for late twentieth-/early twenty-first-century teen-centric versions of Shakespeare which offer "dumbed down" versions of the plays for a young mall-going audience. However astute Richard Burt's insights into "girlene" cinema are, they do not fully explain O--a film that self-consciously stages class and gender conflict, and does so without the knowing wink of Jawbreaker (1999) or Never Been Kissed (1999). (7)

Other critics have tended to eschew analysis of the film's presentation of the Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca equivalents and instead point to Stiles's portrayal of Desi in the context of the actress's depiction of other Shakespearean heroines in contemporary adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew (10 Things I Hate About You, dir. Gil Junger, 1999) and Hamlet (dir. Michael Almereyda, 2000)--adaptations that feature purportedly pluckier, feistier, more individualistic, and more intellectual versions of Shakespeare's women. (8) This appraisal of both early modern female characters and recent cinematic revisions of these characters is simplistic, relying as it does on a teleological vision of female representation which supposes that today we inhabit a postfeminist universe where "super-dainty Kate" (9) becomes kick-ass Kat, and "sweet Desdemon" (10) transforms into the self-assured Desi. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.