Noisy Water Review

Winning Women in Noir: Independence at Any Price

Shelly Bernstein

This writing looks at the roles of the leading female characters in two postmodern noir films, Jackie Brown and The Grifters. In order to understand where the characters fit contextually, four areas are considered here: The effects of the Production Code’s end, how violence against women changed from classic noir to postmodern noir periods and the complexities of women’s economic and familial issues these films illustrate. Each area contributes to understanding the postmodern noir female character and her real-world counterpart and the real-world ramifications these roles bring to light. Given the limited scope of this work, these views are regrettably cursory in nature, forcing this to be a “tap on the shoulder” rather than the “full frontal punch in the face” a true noir evaluation deserves.

After the conservative veil of the Production Code was lifted from American filmmaking in 1968, women’s roles in noir began to more closely reflect the struggles and truths of women’s lives. Nearly forty years of the Code had created a vision of life that more resembled the ideals of the Catholic Church than those of most Americans. Storylines were forced by Code law to punish those who committed crimes, especially women, and morality had to win, no matter what storyline contrivance was necessary in order to punish those evil women. Joan Crawford’s diabolical demeanor and Barbara Stanwyck’s controlled face and stilted manner were aspects of women in noir that shifted as the Code faded from its glory days, replaced with Kathleen Turner’s sultry voice and heated presence and Angie Dickinson’s seductive sexuality. A further shift occurred from the heavy stylization of the eighties into a period of greater realism in characterization from the nineties onward. Although Jackie Brown and The Grifters represent caricatures more than realistic stories and views of women, they maintain a sense of realism in the female protagonist herself that is less present in classic noir and through the stylized eighties. Certainly there are plenty of classic noir films and roles that are realistic, but overall, the Code infected films with false images through their quest for societal purity. The truth of what is real can be tested: Only in the last decade have laws against domestic violence begun to adequately protect American women. If not addressed in society itself, can the realities that women face be accurately portrayed in film?

Parallels can be drawn between the end of the Code manipulation and shift toward realism to the flood of American films in France after World War II. The absence of rules allowed changes in society to be shown overtly, without the artifice of suggestion in film. One might presume a creative backlog was waiting to be unleashed that would let the world see into American’s living rooms and bedrooms, just as the creative flood entered France in earlier times. Women were more likely to be on birth control pills than sitting at home pregnant. They were intent upon having careers and knew what they wanted—regardless of whether those wants were realistic. The rapid changes in baby-boom society left countless women without the necessary tools to navigate an increasingly complicated era. Women were attempting to crash the “glass ceiling,” divorce was rampant, easy travel fractured family connections and the onset of trickle-down economics all contributed to women’s challenges. The freedoms women gained were hard-earned but at a price. The onscreen physical abuse of Jo Ann in The Long Goodbye could not be portrayed under Code rule. In The Grifters, Lilly’s failure to follow Bobo’s rules of grifting caused her to endure his harsh punishment. Never in Code years would a woman be shown on-screen having her face sliced by glass or hand burned with a cigar. Fortunately, it is not entirely clear whether Lilly was actually gut-punched with a towel full of oranges but Jo Ann’s face-slashing appeared real enough. Worse than hitting and burning Lilly, Bobo humiliated her by telling her in advance what he was going to do, that it might very well kill her (slowly) and forced her implication in her own torture. To illustrate the change in the handling of violence toward women in noir, simply compare how graphic the violence of Christina’s murder feels in Kiss Me Deadly. As shocking as that “off-screen” murder feels, the treatment of Lilly by Bobo is more difficult to voyeuristically watch.

In Jackie Brown, Jackie should have been the “femme fatale” by her role as the double-crossing thief. Having an opportunity to win in the end, she chooses only to double-cross the person who threatens her very life. Jackie had a problem in her past, often a commonality for the true “femme fatale.” She is not a bad woman, rather one with a problem needing solution and has no one but herself to rely on in order to find it. Being a black, middle-aged, single woman in America with no prospects for her future and a criminal record that limits her, she represents countless women—more true now than when the film was made. Jackie’s is the problem of the woman who either chooses not to marry, had a difficult marriage that she was able to leave, or put her career first, all realistic situations for women from the seventies onward. Viewing Jackie’s situation positively, she is the smart modern woman who knows each step necessary in order to win over the cops, her gun-dealing (second job) employer Ordell and all of his employees. One advancement for women’s sake is that Jackie is spared on-screen violence.

Viewing these films through the lens of family, the obvious element to note is the incestuous nature of the relationship between Lilly and Roy. Rarely are women in noir allowed any normalcy in life, and negative stereotypes of abnormal family constructs are furthered in both films. Lilly gave up having Roy as family when she was young, perhaps too young to understand the need for family. Or perhaps she separated from him because she was forced to do so in order to survive, aspects of loss real-world women endure in the quest for autonomy and self-sufficiency. As circumstances drew Lilly closer in proximity to her son, she chose to reunite the relationship. Her desire for closeness to him appears layered, but at the end, as he is dying from her final error, her love for him and desire to have an authentic relationship seems to cause her deep anguish. She gets the money in the end but is alone, giving her an empty win. Lilly does not have the benefit of Jackie’s happiness, illustrating the real-world dichotomy women face choosing between family and money.

The lack of family for Lilly and Jackie is a truthful indicator of what was happening in women’s lives in the eighties and nineties, and if viewed honestly is truer now. In the “normal” work environment, women were (and are) expected to work as long and hard as men; certainly eighty hour work weeks were not out of the question in the eighties and nineties, a fact to which this author can attest. These characters represent an alternate choice to the rigors of the new work world in which women were, and are, forced to cope, getting the short straw in all areas of life, and represents their creative answer to the “you can have it all” mentality. The representation of their loneliness was part of the sacrifice women were making as they tried to achieve the self-sufficiency promised them by the earlier feminist movement. The lack of history for women in highly competitive and independent environments created a situation where there were no tools for meaningful dialogue about the problems that come with these territories. These modern women were in an old pickle, with no good solutions to their predicaments, having no one to talk to and learn from. Both films’ core storylines center on the difficulty women face in attempting to solve the problem of financial and familial stability, however, neither film speaks to these challenges overtly, leaving the viewer to interpret each woman’s obstacles and goals. Granted, it is not the goal in film to use words where interpretation and nuance speak volumes but this vagueness mirrors how American society has not openly addressed the problem of women trying to achieve all things, believing they would have to sacrifice none.

In Out of the Past, Ann’s win is melancholy—she gets the man who will take care of her, but not the man she wants, and rather than choose on her own, the deaf/mute boy rescues this implicitly helpless woman by providing the necessary information to protect her. This kind of role is not part of the postmodern female character, as seen by contrasting Out of the Past’s denouement to Jackie Brown’s; the sharp-minded Jackie makes the decision about who she ends up with and how it happens. Her detective is such a good man that he does not say a word when she makes the decision to take the well-deserved vacation, leaving her room to come to her own conclusion. Moreover, Jackie alone orchestrates the entire solution to the complex problem of getting the money, staying alive and outsmarting the cops. She gets the man and the money, without the threat of repercussions. It is unfortunate that she was forced to commit dangerous crimes in order to achieve both emotional and financial success, again representative of women’s real-world limitations.

Lilly’s situation is different than Jackie’s in many ways. She leaves with the money, as did Jackie, and she really is not a bad woman, as with Jackie. However, what Lilly actually wants is love and family. She is lonely—more so than Jackie, and is seeking place and home, hopefully with her son who is the only family she has. Both have a pseudo-family in their respective crime communities, but those families are motivated to kill the women, serving as an anti-family structure. Jackie wants family, and like Lilly is concerned with self-sufficiency, but Jackie understands that having the independence money offers is what allows her to have the happiness of a loving relationship. She is determined to not be controlled by anyone. Lilly’s desire for freedom is the reason she needs the money, as opposed to desire for independence, a subtle but important distinction. Both are forced by lack of option to resort to illegal action in order to survive.

It may be obvious to the reader here that this work has not dealt with these characters through the easy prism of the “femme fatale.” There are reasons for this. The first and most obvious reason is that the female characters mentioned herein are not necessarily “femme fatales” (certainly Jo Ann, Ann and Christina are not). The second reason is that the only way to break gender stereotypes and more equally balance the playing field between men and women is to withdraw from participating in the furtherance of those stereotypes. To that end, Julie Grossman suggests that yoking together sexuality, evil, and powerful women is insufficiently addressed in viewing film noir, and proposes a modified perspective that builds on the work of feminists who suggest that female viewers find grounds for empathy in understanding the “femme fatale” (25). She argues that in order to fully engage in reading film noir, it is necessary to confront simulacral fantasies that not only surround the “femme fatale” but that generate ideas in the culture that have material effects. She suggests that shifting our nomenclature to terms such as “hard-boiled females” or simply femmes modernes, rather than strictly as “femme fatales,” we can more clearly see the ongoing force of binary oppositions in the presentation of gender in contemporary culture and we highlight film noir’s aim to destabilize gender categories. She continues that the predominance of the idea of the “femme fatale” shapes our viewing of all women in noir and keeps us from recognizing complex levels of female subjectivity and the extent to which women are trapped in social roles they can’t change or into performing the role of the “femme fatale” (in film) which then perpetuates ideation surrounding these women. This author agrees with Grossman and prefers to identify Jackie and Lilly as “hard-boiled,” which is clearly supported by their stated history of difficulty in life. They are trapped by their circumstances. What is truly sad is that these hard-suffering characters have life so much easier (even considering their extensive suffering and hardship) than an incredibly high percentage of real-world women, and that women viewing these films can easily come away envying the characters, this author included. It is hard to locate a close counterpart role for men in noir—or film generally, a problem that speaks volumes on the work remaining in our world on the issue of balancing power between genders and assuring that all persons, regardless of gender or ability, have the right to survive without suffering. One way to identify Jackie and Lilly as stereotypes is to reverse gender in the films. It might be hard to escape the tendency to automatically expect the male success and to laugh at them for being fearful. Further, the entire story could easily collapse because the men would seem weak, be hard to empathize with, and worse, the story might very well turn comical. Yes, we do have work to do to level the field between men and women but at least these “hard-boiled” women in postmodern noir are able to achieve reasonable victories.

Works Cited

The Grifters. Dir. Stephen Frears. Perf. Anjelica Huston, Annette Bening, John Cusack. Miramax Films, 1990. Film.

Grossman, Julie. Rethinking The Femme Fatale In Film Noir, Ready For Her Close-up. 1st. Palgrave MacMillan, 2009. Print.

Jackie Brown. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro, Chris Tucker. Miramax Films, 1997. Film.

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