Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Reverence, Rape, Resistance: Joyce Carol Oates and Feminist Film Theory

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Reverence, Rape, Resistance: Joyce Carol Oates and Feminist Film Theory

Article excerpt

The contemporary predominance of visual media has inspired much scholarly speculation on the social impact of movies. Influenced as well by the burgeoning of women's studies, the decades from the 1960s through the 1990s have also been marked by the emergence of feminist film theory, which, like other branches of feminist inquiry, has developed through three areas of focus: analysis of damaging content, explanation of the detrimental processes involved in objectification, and development of strategies to offset destructive representation. The first focus is exemplified in Molly Haskell's pioneering discussion of the treatment of women in the movies, which she provocatively titled From Reverence to Rape; the second has its grounding in Laura Mulvey's classic discussion of the exploitative "male gaze"; and the third is exemplified by Jeanne Allen's study of possible resistive responses of the female spectator.

These theoretical trends have their counterpart in feminist literary works which employ film techniques, and here few contemporary American writers are more central or challenging than Joyce Carol Oates, whose novels and short stories are notable for their often violent depiction of the predicament of women in patriarchal culture. As Eileen Teper Bender observes, Oates's novels include cinematic narrative structure evident in such textual devices as fragmentary narrative, flash-backs, and freeze-frames (118, 63, 75, 76, 88-89) and plots that are based on characters' "celluloid fantasies" (49). In addition, Oates's fiction has received two film treatments: a 1996 version of her 1993 novel Foxfire and Joyce Chopra's 1992 Smooth Talk, an adaptation of the 1966 well-known story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" Also demonstrating Oates's interest in how media representation operates is her own New York Times review of Smooth Talk in which she explains that the ending of her story is a "conclusion impossible to transfigure into film" because the "writer works in a single dimension, the director works in three" (72, 71).

In the following essay, I wish to explore the way that feminist concerns and film theory intersect in Oates's much anthologized 1974 short story, "The Girl" a work which depicts the brutal rape of a sixteen-year-old girl, and which by presenting this violence in the form of the filming of the event, functions as a parodic adaptation of classic cinema in keeping with Oates's general critique of American ideologies of feminine identity. One by one, Oates's most memorable youthful heroines endure destructive "salvations" in their attempts to achieve adult identities. Connie of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" Maureen of them, and Enid of You Must Remember This, to name only three, submit themselves to phallocentric culture, experiencing self-loss in the form of alienation, madness, and probable rape. The meaning of this predominant pattern is condensed in Oates's short story "The Girl," in which a young woman tries to find recognition by becoming the star of a movie in which she is quite literally almost obliterated.

To explore how this pattern operates, I will focus respectively on what might be called the "three R's of feminist film criticism: concerns with a) Reverence - the naive belief in cinematic fulfillment; b) Rape - the exploitation involved in the film process; and c) Resistance - the ways in which the audience can respond to depictions of violence and particularly how women can counter the negative effects of their visual subjugation. By discussing the film in the story in the context of these three R's, I wish to demonstrate not only the significant intersection between Oates's fiction and film theory but also the way that recourse to such a strategy enables Oates further to articulate her central concern with the impact of media culture on women's experience.

As a short story, "The Girl" takes the form of the teenaged protagonist's disjointed memories of the events leading up to the making of the film in which she is raped, the film itself, and the aftermath of this event. …

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