"The Representation of Aggressive Women in Various Adaptations of Maurine Dallas Watkins’s Chicago" by Zsófia Anna Tóth
Zsófia Anna Tóth is a predoctoral research fellow at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. E-mail:
In this paper my aim is to discuss various representations of violent or unruly women in a selection of American films with a special focus on the theatrical and textual versions of Chicago. This story started out as a series of newspaper articles that evolved into dramatic form in 1927, and was then first adapted to film in 1927. Its second adaptation was in 1942; then the story “went back to stage” in 1975, and “landed” again on screen in 2002. My intention is to examine these different versions of Chicago and through them the different stages in the representation of the femme fatale imagery in American culture in the twentieth century.
When it comes to the representation of violent women, one first thinks of the smoldering temptresses of the silver screen, the descending/ascending or gliding goddesses of the film industry, of the femmes fatales of the film noir or the vamps of early film history. However, the picture or rather the image is not that simple. Although there is a tendency (and even sometimes an urge) in readers and viewers to presume that the representation of violent and evil women can be encompassed in a rather simplistic and one-sided specter of, for example the film noir femmes fatales, the representational realm of unruly women or of female “offenders” of all sorts is quite complex. Undoubtedly, Theda Bara – as a vamp during the early years of film industry – or Barbara Stanwyck – as a film noir femme fatale in Double Indemnity (1944) – have a prominent share in the violent women’s visual (and/or textual) representation. But one must not forget about the unique treatment of this imagery in several of the Pre-Code films, for example in Journal of a Crime (1934) or Red-headed Woman (1932). Even Hitchcock made us see these very types of women during the golden years of the Production Code. In addition, towards the end of the Code era came Bonnie and Clyde (1967), not to mention the uncommon and less-known genre of the rape-revenge films like Ms. 45 (1981) and later Thelma & Louise (1991). We must not forget about all other films depicting this trend that opened up a new way in the representation of “aggressive females” in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) or the Alien series – with the first part produced in 1979 – up to the 2002 version of Chicago and the Kill Bill series (2003, 2004) together with Monster (2003), just to name a few of the more recent ones. The change in the representation of unruly women has certain connections with Second-wave feminism and with the professional investigation of female offenders and female criminality that flourished during the seventies as an aftermath of the women’s movement and all kinds of civil rights movements of the sixties.
The pseudo-scientific discourse of the fin de siècle – especially ideas expressed by scholars and doctors such as Dr. Edward H. Clarke, Dr Henry Maudsley and Karl Pearson that stressed the fact that mental and intellectual work had a debilitating effect on women and their reproductive capacity (Richardson 241, 244) – easily connected the figure of the New Woman to the image of the femme fatale (Klein 87-88) and had a considerable influence on the representation of women during the early twentieth century, especially in cinematic discourse. As Bram Dijkstra emphasized, “[w]ithin this context the movies’ wholesale appropriation of the essential gender dichotomies characteristic of late-nineteenth-century art became a crucial factor in establishing the twentieth century’s visual iconography of the ‘battle of the sexes’” (313). Dijkstra claims that the representational logic and gender dichotomies of the nineteenth century prevailed in the twentieth century and stresses the fact that they still affect us through the visual conventions today:
As a result, even today many of the visual conventions of nineteenth century art appropriated by the silents continue to shape our notions of sexual difference. The movies helped turn the metaphors of fin-de-siècle art and science into the psychological realities of the twentieth-century gender and race prejudice. (316).
The psychological propaganda of D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. De Mille’s films also build on this tradition with one of the main tenets of this propaganda being that marital love is the source of a nation’s claim to global significance (316-317). This might be an explanation for the ways in which the story of Chicago “was reformed” in the 1927 film adaptation, where the focus is very much on the couple’s (lost) happiness that the husband strives to save by any means, while the woman as feminine evil destroys everything. Although Roxie gets away with the murder here, as well, yet the familial bliss is over – which is not the central concern in any other versions of the story. Dijkstra writes that during the twenties “[t]wo themes were churned over and over again: man’s fateful pollution by the temptations of the sexual vampire and his redemption by the self-effacing love of the female saint” (334). This is exactly what happens in the 1927 film version when after Roxie’s “elimination” the husband is “saved” by the female saint of the film.
Only during the seventies some scholars opened up more views on the question concerning women’s violence; they advocated the investigation of the topic under a different light. By doing so they revealed the fact that women were not different from men in cases of violent and/or aggressive behavior. Hence, theorists concluded, their representation should not be contrasted with the men’s criminal attitudes. The seeds of thought were sewn and in the representational field it also started to be recognized that not all female offenders are evil incarnate in the form of the femme fatale, which was the “visible” form, the palpable product and expression of male fears (but also of erotic fantasies). Also not all angelic ladies were so perfectly nice and innocent like the ingénues of early film history.
The film industry builds heavily on the feminine stereotypes prevailing in the latter part of the nineteenth century. This was the time when filmmaking started and thus the representation of gender was strongly connected to and influenced by the Victorian ideals of femininity and proper behavior, which had strong ties with religious dogmas. According to this view, the woman had to be the pure lady, the so-called “angel in the house” and if she was not what was expected of her she was labeled a “fallen woman.” Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar discuss this duality, especially from the point of female authorship in the given period (3-104). In fact, this duality was also already present in the public consciousness and the artistic productions of the Romantic era (preceding the Victorian one) (Alexander 18-34, Mellor 17-39). The precedents are too many to treat them in this paper, they date back for many centuries and bear the Judeo-Christian heritage with its cult of true womanhood in which the Victorian “lady” has her ideological base (Daniel 4-5).
The “angel in the house” has another name typical in the United States: the “true woman.” At the turn of the century in the U.S. women were still subject to the role of the ideal woman that nourished the cult of true womanhood, which encompassed the characteristics relevant in the case of the “angel in the house:” piety, purity, submissiveness, being domestic and homebound (Daniel 7-8, Welter 48-71, Kitch 17-36). The “angel in the house” and the “true woman” both are linked to the “eternal feminine” image: submissive, modest, self-less, graceful, pure, delicate, civil, compliant, reticent, chaste, affable, polite (Gilbert, Gubar 23), slim, pale, passive, snowy and immobile in a porcelain-like manner (25). During the Victorian period the “fallen woman” gained a new coinage: she became the femme fatale, the deadly or lethal woman. The fallen woman’s actual “fall” traced her from grace and decency to immorality and sin, the latter being primarily connected with sexuality during the beginning of women’s emancipation movements when the control of reproduction and material (re)sources was in central position in the patriarchal culture of the West. The “angel woman” is not represented in sexual terms; the fallen woman, however, is. With the threat of syphilis the fallen woman can easily become a lethal one: and the route is direct to label her the femme fatale. (Richardson 240-262).
The duality of these feminine stereotypes and role models for women (with their biased and mistaken notions) intensified and sharpened towards the nineteenth century with the emergence of the New Woman. The figure of the New Woman challenged these existing sharp dichotomies (with all stereotypes about women’s role, nature, capacity, abilities, etc.). By doing so, this evidently caused inordinate upheavals, fierce debates after which many of the so-called New Women gained the labels of deviant, decadent, abnormal, deadly or even homicidal. This connected the image of the New Woman to that of the existing femme fatale (Ledger 9-34, 94-121, Pykett 137-157). There had been several women writers, among them Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen, who attempted to address the above-mentioned issues even before the New Woman debate even started, but at the given time they could not gain too much publicity and enough attention, therefore they could not achieve real prominence and so, results in the rectification of the image of women. By the end of the nineteenth century, due to the existing economic boom (in the aftermath of the industrial revolution), together with the scientific progress and socio-cultural changes that occurred in society, it became possible for women to have access to financial resources through education and work. This resulted in the growth of their independence, which, in turn, altered their situation in the realm of sexual politics.
The New Woman made possible (and visible) many of the stories of change that we know today. Without the New Woman, there would not have been writers like Maurine Dallas Watkins – who had a say on how femme fatales, fallen women, unruly women, or female offenders were represented; without voices like hers there would not have been factual changes in the more authentic representation of women. At the beginnings of film production, the then-prevalent, dual feminine types were adapted to screen. These were the ingénue (the filmic angel in the house or true woman) and the vamp (the cinematic fallen woman or femme fatale). This latter expression, vamp (the shortened version for vampire), according to Reinhold Heller, came to existence when the femme fatale “reached” the United States, became integrated into the American slang use and was “renamed, reshaped” by Hollywood (Heller 11). Two of the earliest and most explicit exemplars of the ingénue image were Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, while those of the vamp image were, for example, Theda Bara and Pola Negri. The young and early Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich also “joined” this latter club but with the advent of the prolific and versatile Pre-Code era, they also started to impersonate more layered and complex (although still often “deviant”) characters.
After the silent film era’s initial Victorian-like ingénue – vamp duality, the New Woman “took” her “part” in the representation shifts that occurred in the film industry. During the Pre-Code Hollywood era, we can indeed find some more authentic representations of women, be either “angelic” or “fallen,” they were simply without demonisation, mystification or distortion. (Lasalle 11-252) This exceptional period was followed by another one, in which the representational techniques of dangerous, murderous and fallen women again sunk into the unsophisticated and rather simplistic methodology of the angel-devil duality (e.g.: the film noir) due especially to the censorship of the Production Code Administration. “The Production Code Administration (PCA) consisted of an executive branch of censors that controlled a conglomerate of restrictive guidelines governing the production of American movies, with the aim to ban indecent and immoral films.” (Cristian, Dragon 73) Some of the themes that were to be handled carefully or to be avoided totally were the following: illicit sex, adultery, nudity, seduction, vulgarity, obscenity etc.; everything had to be presented in a way that nobody should sympathize with crime or evil and the sanctity of law had to be preserved – just to name a few but I will elaborate on the subject matter later on. (74)
In 1924, in the months of March and April, two murder cases took place in the city of Chicago the coverage of which was the duty of a young reporter, Maurine Dallas Watkins, who did her job right resulting in great success (Pauly xiii-xix). The series of newspaper articles became increasingly popular, and later, these stories were rewritten in the form of a drama, entitled Chicago, in 1927 for the delight of even more people. Watkins wrote the series of articles in which she covered the two murder cases of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner. “No sweetheart is worth killing,” (121) so started Belva Gaertner with the (ill-)famed utterance, and continued, “─especially when you have had a flock of them─and the world knows it” (ibid). The next thoughts which hit the headlines were: “[w]hy, it’s silly to say I murdered Walter […] I liked him and he loved me─but no woman can love a man enough to kill him. They aren’t worth it, because there are always plenty more […]” (121-122). She herself did not take her own advice; however, if she had done so, the story of Chicago might not have been born due to lack of incentive.
It is an interesting question to see why and how the story of Chicago started its long-lasting existence in American culture, and the means through which it became a recurrent theme throughout the twentieth century in various media. My proposition is that Watkins foresaw the power behind the murder stories (she started to deal with female aggression and crimes committed by women) and its subsequent media manipulation that later became a quite prevalent issue in American culture throughout the twentieth century. It seemed that the entire context of the twentieth century was all about murder and media manipulation. Today, when more and more news are about women – even little girls aged ten or eleven, who murder somebody or commit some sort of serious crime, not even mentioning numerous films and TV series etc. which feature such topics – Chicago seems to be just one story among many others dealing with female murderers or violence committed by women. However, the story of Chicago has something unique to offer, a special milieu that has recurrence in various adaptations. Thomas H. Pauly observed the above-mentioned issues when he was discussing Watkins’s 1927 drama in 1997:
That Maurine Watkins and her comedy should be so forgotten today is almost amazing in view of all the attention recently lavished on the trials of Amy Fisher, the Menendez brothers, and O. J. Simpson. Watkins’s play offers a bracing reminder that lurid crimes were as aggressively commercialized seventy years ago as they are today. As we grow uneasily aware of the hyperbole and hypocrisy in our media’s exploitation of yet another trial, Chicago demonstrates that similar conditions have existed for most of the twentieth century. Even better, Watkins’s comedy ridicules these conditions and exposes folly far more effectively than the standard complaints about our media-crazed society. Her comic depiction of a woman groping toward liberation and the future foregrounds pressures women still face, but it is downright uncanny in its anticipation of today’s news-as-entertainment culture. (viii)
He continues over-viewing the story of Chicago before the 2002 version that gave a new swing to this story and to all of the debates and arguments around it. Pauly notes that
[…] the fascination with crime, celebrity, and image fabrication, which factored so prominently into the background and writing of Chicago, has only intensified and increased the pertinence of her comedy. These were significant considerations in the 1940s decision to make Roxie Hart. They were very much on the minds of the producers who sought the rights to Watkins’s play back in the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, they factored prominently into the enthusiastic reception of the Fosse musical when it finally opened in 1975. Today, they are more evident than ever. As criticisms mount over the ways newspapers, the nightly television news, and prime-time gossip shows exploit trials to hold their audience’s attention, Chicago reminds us that the 1920s had its own Amy’s and O. J.’s. Indeed, it portrays a culture enough like our own that it deserves to be remembered. (xxviii)
The critic’s jeremiads must have been heard indeed, for in 2002, Chicago was adapted to screen again. An upsurge of discussions on the above-mentioned subject matters ensued, and certainly, on the story itself, especially, on the “herstories” of Chicago. Marty Richards, the producer of the 2002 film adaptation – when questioned about the latest version of Chicago – declared: “[y]eah, it’s all about murder, greed and adultery, everything we hold near and dear to our hearts. That’s what Chicago is about. It’s everything that is happening now in the papers. That’s what it’s about; it’s today’s headlines, it’s the six o’clock news…” (Marshall “Behind the Scenes”)
When Watkins wrote her drama, she started to weave the trope of the Black Widow’s murderous web in her writing, which soon made its way to the screen. Throughout the twentieth century the story interestingly switched back and forth between stage and screen. The fine lace of murder brought fame and success to the character of Roxie, to her “author,” and to all other consequent creators of the later versions of Chicago. The success of Chicago was foreshadowed when the stage performance gained immense success despite the mixed criticism it had. Among the appraisals were literary compilations that listed this text among the best plays of 1926-27 (Mantle v-ix, 12, 27-28, 94-117, 354, 452), especially that of George Jean Nathan, who, in the preface to the 1927 edition of Watkins’s work, championed its American features:
[…] with its few unavoidable defects, her play is an eminently worth-vile affair, its roots in verity, its surface polished with observation and humorous comprehension, its whole witty, wise and appropriately mordant. It is American to the core; there is not a trace of imitativeness in it; and it discloses, unless I am badly mistaken, a talent that will go a considerable distance in the drama of the land. (Watkins viii)
Nathan also noted that “[t]his play, the first to be published in the library of significant modern theatrical compositions to be known as The Theatre of Today, those critics who have a fondness for pigeon-holes have had a hard time laying hold of an appropriate label” and continued saying that “[t]his ‘Chicago’ may be described roughly as a burlesque show written by a satirically minded person.” (vii). In the same context, the critic observed that “[t]he note of satirical burlesque is strange to the American theatrical ear. It has seldom been struck, and then with indifferent success. ‘Chicago,’ it seems to me, marks the happiest attempt to date. In it, we may find inkling and a promise of the soundly sophisticated drama of an increasingly receptive and intelligent native playhouse.” (ix)
It seems that Watkins and (her) Chicago had the best of prospects for future considerable praise, recognition and therefore, further adaptations. According to the makers of the 2002 version, the disillusionment after the Watergate scandal(s) was one factor in the success of the 1975 vaudeville version (Marshall “Audio commentary given by Rob Marshall and Bill Condon”). Thus, in accordance with them and Pauly I suggest that Chicago appeared again and again because it had relevance during the entire twentieth century as it still does in the twenty-first, as well. Chicago is not simply one among all the stories tackling the question of murderers or even especially female ones and/or the problem of media manipulation. It reaches a long way back to where all these problems started concerning the public discussion of female aggression. Certainly, female murderers and violent women have always existed, they killed people and committed violent acts of all kinds; the difference lay solely in how it was presented, discussed and tackled. Towards the end of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth – due to the results of the various political, financial, economic, social and cultural changes, not to mention the historical events of varying importance – the role and situation of women started to change immensely also resulting in a modification and alteration of the discourse related to them. It is true, however, that the kind of discourse concerning female violence and aggressive behavior which really attempted to understand and discuss properly these subject matters appeared only during the seventies but there had been a few attempts before that, as well; and it could be stated that Chicago during the twenties was one of these.
The handling of “deviant” people of all sorts is always one of the most problematic matters of a state, or in other terms, a culture but the question of gender adds to the severity of this problem all the time. Watkins while trying to show a distorting mirror to American culture criticizing several problematic points in it – such as media manipulation, the flaws of the judicial system and so on – she also attempted to cast light upon how problematic the handling of female murderers and women’s aggressive behavior is. Watkins presented – and at the same time satirized – the schizophrenic attitude towards female offenders. She tried to present several alternatives to the phenomenon of the female murderer herself – for example, an immigrant woman, or a mother, even a mentally ill person, etc. – yet, the underlying principle of tackling these lawless women is to be found in it exposed and criticized, that is, women who err are either handled too strictly or too leniently in a paternalistic manner, writes Edwin M. Schur (213-231). When using the expression, female murderer, I refer to the women committing crimes; and I exclude from my argumentation the gender-biased term from multiple critical essays, that of the “murderess.” Schur’s position is also relevant in connection with the female murderers of Chicago since these convicted women are treated too severely, like the character Hunyak in the 1927 drama, in the 1975 vaudeville and the 2002 film version, too. Other convicted women of most versions of Chicago are presented quite leniently like Roxie in the 1927 drama, the 1927 film adaptation, the 1942 film version, the 1975 vaudeville and the 2002 adaptation.
The Billy Flynn character – present in all versions – has a central role in the way these women are treated due to the fact that he is the top defense attorney and he is the one who knows how to pull strings to win a case. Concerning his “person,” there is also a significant characteristic feature, which helps him in the manipulation of the jury, the public, and in winning the acquittal of the women he defends – in fact, his success lies in the fact the he specializes in female clients. He acts as a “protecting” father figure who stands behind these women in trouble he is helping, and who “takes care of them,” thus projecting an image that the defendant is a good woman because a respectable paternal figure grants her orderliness and innocence. This stereotype role-play is acted out in all versions, as the defense tactic is based on the following logic: the strong, protective and active male character shields the passive, frightened, even infantilized (recalling the Lolita complex with the recurrent theme of leg showing and skirt pulling “accidents”) domesticated, pseudo-angelic, saint-like girl-woman in the pedophilic Mary Pickford mode (Studlar 198-221, Haskell 58). The most extreme version of this performed stereotype occurs in the 1942 film version – which is, however, strongly choreographed after the 1927 film version concerning the trial scenes – where, after she “faints,” the half-conscious Roxie is carried to the judge in the arms of Billy Flynn to be offered as a sacrificial lamb in a (fake) tragic manner.
This “protective” quasi-central male character is the one around whom the female defendants orbit like moons around a planet. He is the embodiment of the concept of the Bentham–Orwellian panopticon (Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 170-228), which ensures that the “orbiting,” erring females supposedly become docile bodies the state and society needs (Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 135-170). Billy Flynn states that there is one thing the jury and the people cannot resist and that is a reformed sinner (Marshall 2002). This is partly due to the American belief in moral regeneration as Irén Annus puts it: in the realization of the American Dream, apart from the ideals of material success and social progress, the ideal and the belief in moral regeneration is also of great importance (106). The other reason behind the reformed sinner irresistibility is the belief (also ingrained into the American culture) in the new beginnings and the possibility of restart and renewal (Campbell and Kean 20-43 and Kroes 28-32). Roxie plays her role as a reformed sinner and perfect docile body quite well, therefore she gets acquitted and gets her new beginning while the less lucky ones (although being innocent) who do not have enough money to hire Billy Flynn in order to avoid punishment and execution do not get acquitted and are punished. Thus, it seems that if the order is kept (by a man), there is no further disturbance but peace and the all-seeing eye is insured to be in control.
Watkins draws her female murderers by presenting them in a different light from what was customary around her time. In the early twentieth century, the imagery of the femme fatale still loomed over the violent or, sometimes even, the solely unconventional women; in the film industry, the duality of the ingénue and the vamp was also prevalent. The mainstream logic of representation followed this line but Watkins did not adhere to this view. Instead, she turned to the topic of representing criminal women with wry humor and satirical stance. She ridiculed the strict and serious angel-devil duality and highlighted its contradictions via presenting the techniques of how a perfect angel, ingénue, can be performed before any court while having much more affinity to the she-devil identity, that is, the vamp herself.
Watkins based her story on real-life events, having had first-hand experiences about the female murders phenomena. As it was written in The Best Plays of 1926-27 about the season in Southern California, “[…] ‘Chicago’ continued for two months to teach Hollywood flappers how to handle the law” (Mantle 28). Watkins turned upside-down the existing system with a hilarious play from which the girls and women of the Roaring Twenties, the flappers, could learn how to distance themselves from these images and how to “play with them if they pleased.” The flapper was an easy-going girl wearing bobbed hair and short skirt, who mostly concentrated only on partying and leisure time, and for whom social liberation was more important than any other intellectual activity; the flapper behaved in a carefree manner and was typically considered sensual because of the sexual liberties she took in the name of the “new morality” (Haskell 75-76, Allen 61-86, Kitch 121-135). However, what connects the phenomenon of the flapper here – apart from the fact that Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner both belonged to this very generation – is that the flapper women adopted the air of the vamp borrowing it from the cinema stars of the era.
In the 1927 film adaptation the ingénue – vamp duality is an interesting one because Watkins did not create this imagery in her 1927 play and did not even imply this conventional role set. Lenore J. Coffe, the scrip writer of this adaptation, however, interpreted the characters this way and adapted the story in a specific mode that made this duality possible. Hence, what Watkins managed to achieve in her drama, was “destroyed” in the 1927 film version. Roxie is initially a red-haired woman that becomes a platinum blonde (quasi-)angelic figure in the 1927 adaptation and then is presented as a brunette in the 1942 version. Interestingly, from the1975 version on she becomes blonde again. In the 1927 adaptation Roxie is not killed in the end as the femme fatales were at that time, yet, she is punished (unlike in the other versions of Chicago) but not severely; she is not put to jail and gets away in a specifically Watkinsian mode. However, she loses her husband, unlike in the other versions, where she either refuses him or gets rid of him intentionally.
In the 1927 film version, the vamp Roxie is presented as somebody who has lost everything by the end of the story and the angelic ingénue, Katie, is the one who “deserves” the husband, Amos Hart. Although, the husband endeavors throughout the whole film to save Roxie, yet, at the end, he casts her away in a tragic manner by destroying their home, too. An unusual feature of the film is that Amos is presented in a positive light: he is active, potent, and competent and he seems to be mostly in control. This is the only version where he is posited so. The story is even told from his perspective: it is much more his quest and struggle for the beloved woman than Roxie’s own battle with crime and the evasion of punishment. She is here the vamp figure who is dismissed with nothing; she stays alive and remains free, but loses everything else and the last shot of her is as she is walking down the dark street alone no one knows where while the husband stays in the flat heart-broken, yet, with dignity, and the little ingénue claims that she will set everything right for him. This version is quite much in the pattern of the Cecil B. DeMille films where dramas of couples and marriage problems are discussed. His stories were often sophisticated comedies and/or melodramas of marital intrigue and it often happened that the sympathy was with the wifely problems, the presented women’s roles ranged from sacrificial lamb to social lioness to wanton murderess (Haskell 76-77). Chicago (1927) is really a melodrama of marital intrigue, although, with phases of comedic episodes in it and the leading female character is a wanton murderess while the girl-woman who is the real “winner” in the end (as suggested by the film) is much more of the sacrificial lamb-type. This version, although a masterpiece in itself, quite much diverges from what Watkins intended to project through “her” female murderers and their fates. It was a silent film, one of the last ones to be produced in the American film industry before The Jazz Singer (1927).
Not long after the great success of the original drama and the relative success of the 1927 film, the Production Code emerged in full power in 1934 (a milder version of censorship introduced in 1930) and over sought the Hollywood film production for about thirty years (Lasalle 188). After the short and much liberal Pre-Code Hollywood period when “real women” were presented on screen with their “real problems” and not even the murderous or criminal women were posited as demons and she-devils, what is more, they mostly got away with murder (142-164). The rigid duality of angels and devils came in with the Hays Code (the other term for the Production Code) and the strong influence of the Catholic Church through The National Legion of Decency, which propagated (among several things) that the evil always had to be punished, and it was especially strict about sexuality (and implicitly) women and what they did/showed on screen. Joseph Breen became one of the most important figure of this era (together with Will Hays, Jason Joy, Daniel Lord and Martin Quigley), he was the head of the Production Code Administration that (safe)guarded the sanctity of Christian values in the American cinema with strict censorship (Lasalle 62-66; Cristian, Dragon 73-74). The motto of the Code said that: “[n]o picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it.” (Lasalle 64; Cristian, Dragon 74) According to these rules, crimes could be portrayed only in a way that excluded the possibility of positive identification and sympathy with the crime itself or the person who committed it. The court always had to be presented as just and positive example of universal punishment. Nudity, profanity, obscenity, vulgarity and any kind of indecency were strictly prohibited; love and sexuality were under especially severe strictures (Lasalle 64-65; Cristian, Dragon 73-74) and
“[i]mpure love” ─ that is, anything “banned by divine law” ─ could not be portrayed “as attractive and beautiful.” It could not be a subject for comedy or farce. It could not be presented in a way as to “arouse passion.” And it could not be made to “seem right and permissible.” (Lasalle 65)
After getting acquainted with all these regulations one would presume that a story like Chicago would never be reproduced under such circumstances. However, Roxie Hart (1942) being produced and shown was certainly adopting the regulations described above, for example, in a way that the actual murder scene when Roxie kills Casely – which has a central place in all of the other versions showing explicitly the act of murder – is not shown and the whole story is presented in a way that the spectator actually gets uncertain whether it was really her who committed the crime. According to the story of the 1942 version, Roxie claims it only because she is talked into it in order to gain fame. The court and the jury are all decent and just in their representation. Plus, all kind of nudity, profanity, obscenity, vulgarity and indecency – which, after the disappearance of the Code, came into full force in the 1975 version in a multiplied form – were excluded in the 1942 film, not to mention the explicit sexuality between Casely and Roxie, which again were prevalent in all versions except in the 1942 movie.
In fact, the Code was the first factor in the American film industry to cause the most harm in the representation of women. The complex and more realistic characterization of female characters of the Pre-Code era was over. The Depression era with the unemployment and the financial hardships, followed by the World War II did not help in elevating the gloomy mood of the masses. While women could get education (even the highest levels), proper work and they could earn money (especially during the war) through the opening up of more and more types of jobs, the role models for women and the cultural representations projected towards them – with the exception of “Rosie the Riveter” – still remained quite limited and bound to the traditional ideals. (Daniel 122-159)
Around this time, the film noir era also arrived with the most negative images about women possible in all the history of film industry, for example, Barbara Stanwyck is Double Indemnity (1944) or Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai (1947). As Haskell puts it:
[i]n the dark melodramas of the forties, woman came down from her pedestal and she did not stop when she reached the ground. She kept going – down, down like Eurydice, to the depths of the criminal world, the enfer of the film noir – and then compelled her lover to glance back and betray himself. Sometimes, she sucked him down with her […], [s]ometimes she used him and laughed in his face […], [s]ometimes she lied and lied and lied […], [s]ometimes she wasn’t crooked, just a little out of line […], [S]ometimes she was a murderess […], [s]ometimes she was a femme fatale […], [s]ometimes she was a cool, enigmatic career girl […], [s]ometimes she was crazy in love enough to kill herself and her lover […], later she sometimes crossed over to good. […] She had sensual lips, or long hair that passing over her face like Veronica Lake’s, cast a shadow of moral ambiguity. Angel or devil, good-bad or bad-good girl, she was a change from the either/or – heroine or villainess – of the twenties and thirties. […] she hadn’t a soul she could call her own. She was, in fact, a male fantasy. She was playing a man’s game in a man’s world of crime and carnal innuendo, where her long hair was the equivalent of gun, where sex was the equivalent of evil. And where her power to destroy was a projection of man’s feeling of impotence. […] She is to her thirties’ counterpart as night – or dusk – is to day. (189-191)
However, more recent debates claim that the femmes fatales of the film noirs are actually and quite visibly, active agents and subjects in their own rights (cf. E. Bronfen’s “Risky Resemblances” and “Femme Fatale–Negotiations of Tragic Desire,” and also Cristian, Dragon 88), a stance that coincides with the women figures of the contemporary Chicago adaptations.
With the hardships of the Great Depression, World War II, and the ensuing Communist furor, the society produced a heightened sense of paranoia, alternate optimism/pessimism, as well as a sense of instability and impotence, etc., Haskell claimed (194). According to a Newsweek report in August 1943, 56% of the women in the labor force intended to keep their jobs and continue working after the war (Daniel 131). Haskell adds that even those films, plays and novels which had been written earlier but were (re)adapted in the forties took the era’s peculiar colorations (Haskell 194), just like Roxie Hart in 1942. In addition, this was the period when the hardboiled detective fiction genre really started blooming with the works of Dashiel Hammett, Raymond Thornton Chandler, and many others, who also wrote screenplays or whose works were adapted to screen. The film noir film production mostly consisted of such detective and crime stories (Gronemeyer 99) combined with melodramas, musicals, and westerns (98), and since they were basically written for male audiences, the representation of women was far from being woman-friendly (99). As Haskell states, most movies of the forties (especially the male genres) were concentrating on men’s soul and salvation and not on those of the woman. She adds that even the musicals of the forties had their central focus on men’s quest, on his rather than her story (207). This above-mentioned statement is valid in Roxie Hart (1942), as well, since here (although not being a “real musical” only filled with 1-2 musical-dancing scenes), Roxie’s story is told by a male character called Homer Howard, who provides the (male) frame to the story. He is also a character to whom Roxie (at the end with six children of her own) reveals the great news that they would need a new and bigger car since the next child is on the way. This is an eerie ending for Chicago where Roxie lives the grace of familial bliss. But the Production Code and the film noir era made “wonders” here, too.
Roxie Hart is a noir type of product; Roxie here is not posited as the evil femme fatale (of the resurrected Victorian-era syphilistic prostitute type) whose sole aim in life is to destroy men through her irresistible, lethal sexuality. She is not destined to embody this simplified, trivial and one-sided female representation, which abounds on the (pages and) screens of the era. However, her character is not that versatile and exceptional, either, and she is quite much “toned down” in this adaptation and she quite much conforms to the “good bad girl” category (Gronemeyer 99). This film is a screwball comedy with a fake (and also genre-mocking) film noir crime story shade. In spite of its farcical turns and mock film noir style, Roxie Hart stands “farthest” (considering the adaptations) from the genuine wit and irony of Watkins’s original story and the message it (had) meant to convey.
In the forties and fifties filmmakers tried to defend themselves by safe-play, which often resulted in creating films with very simple and innocent plots or they adapted already famous and successful literary works or they made great historical opuses. This period produced mostly glamorous musicals, sentimental melodramas or costly historical spectacles. Alfred Hitchcock was one of the greatest directors of this period, the father of suspense and thriller (Gronemeyer 101-109); his female representations differed greatly from what was/had been in habit and his depiction of unruly, erring, aggressive, criminal or even murderous women was/is not that negative, prejudiced and one-sided (most of the time); and he usually made an attempt to understand and to present the problems of women as they were with as little distortion as possible, for example, in The Lady Vanishes (1938), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) or Marnie (1964) and so on.
The significant turning point in the general representational trend – also including the representation of women’s violence and violence in general – was from the sixties on. This turn was not only due to the significant cultural and political changes taking place as a result of the various civil rights movement(s) involving the second wave of feminism, the gay and lesbian movement, black liberation movement etc. but also because the Production Code’s power diminished due to the emergence and spreading of television (Gronemeyer 109-111) and because of the fall of the studio system (105-107). As Molly Haskell puts it: “[t]he disintegration of Hollywood in the traditional sense came from within as well as without. Thematically as well as technologically, the death of Hollywood was an idea whose time had come, […]” (232). Haskell adds to this the role of television in all this process:
[…] in robbing movies of their mass audience, television had stolen more than bodies and box-office figures. It had destroyed the faith: that belief in their fictions and fables by which the movies touched base with millions of viewers and had the authority of received religion. In a land of many churches and no Church, this mythical bond constituted the only national religion America had ever known […] and the only “realism” film has ever known. With the best dreams that money could buy, filmmakers created a reality that was far more real for most people than the world they lived in. (234)
In addition, after years of hard censorship in movies, people wanted to see sex and violence in films and to watch films without the artificiality of the Code regulation. As Haskell claims, the films and the stars of the fifties “were all about sex, but without sex” (235). The visible “chastity” of cinema held up by the Production Code were then considered “unhealthy” mainly with the “breast fetishism” and the Lolita lechery of the existing movies. Society was in a postwar phase, similarly to the twenties, and the time of sexual freedom was there (235).
It was as if the whole period of the fifties was a front, the topsoil that protected the seed of rebellion that was germinating below. The cultural disorientation had begun, but it had yet to be acknowledged. By the sixties, the break would be official and the divorce a quickie (235).
The sixties, according to Haskell, were not promising years for the filmic representation of women; her pessimism was further echoed by the beginning of the seventies, that signaled the fact that the growing strength of women’s liberation resulted in a backlash in commercial film (323). However, there were positive changes, as well, since the less human, glamorous figures of Code-era female stars turned into more human-humane beings during this period even if it was not a happy conversion.
The sixties, which witnessed the disappearance of the studios and the phony glamour industry, gave the stars a chance to find out, as they receded and “real” human beings took over (showing their “authenticity” by scorning lipstick for eyeshadow and dresses for jeans). But somehow it wasn’t the great love-and-reality trip it was supposed to be. (324)
Haskell also discusses what the ideal woman of the sixties and seventies was in fact, not a woman but “a girl, an ingénue, a mail-order cover girl: regular featured, generally brunette, whose ‘real person’ credentials were proved by her inability to convey any emotion beyond shock or embarrassment and an inarticulateness that was meant to prove her ‘sincerity’” (329). It was Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which was the real breakthrough from the point of view of the representation of sex and violence with a female lead next to a male character. By the seventies and into the eighties, sexuality and violence abounded in films.
However, in the middle of the great changes in the representation of women in cinema and the expanding character number of female murderers on screen Chicago was reproduced again in the seventies, yet, on stage. After several failed trials and attempts to gain the rights of Chicago from Maurine Watkins to readapt it again and to put it to stage in musical form, the crime story opened in 1975 on Broadway. In spite of the continuous interest in the story throughout the fifties and sixties, Watkins – by this time an eccentric recluse and a born-again Christian (Pauly xxix) – refused to sell the rights of the drama. When she died in 1969, her estate finally released the rights and Bob Fosse with Gwen Verdon, Fred Ebb and John Kander managed to bring to life the story of Chicago again, this time as a musical, entitled Chicago, A musical vaudeville (1975). Although it gained mixed reviews, it had a successful run (Pauly viii) and it has ever since. However, as a counterexample, Denny Martin Flinn does not praise the musical version of Chicago in his work entitled Musical! A Grand Tour, The Rise, Glory, and Fall of An American Institution. He criticizes Bob Fosse’s choreography in a contradictory manner while claiming that his style was individual and unique (Flinn 302); he dislikes Gwen Verdon’s singing and dancing abilities while acknowledging her mesmerizing stage presence and persona (450). And his suggestion, that Chicago is a dark vaudeville (468), is rather disputable because it cannot be so only on the grounds of having murder, female murderers, media manipulation and issues of similar sorts in it. These do not imply that the adaptation is “dark.” Finally, Flinn labels Chicago (1975) “respectable” and still ranks it among the best musicals (488). His attitude is quite ambiguous, which might be the symptom of the “mixed reviews effect” the version received after opening.
On the positive side, Andrew Lamb, in his book entitled 150 Years of Popular Musical Theatre, states that “[t]he quarter-century from 1943 to the late 1960s was perhaps the core period of the development of the American musical” (294). He also claims that “[t]he work that has most closely rivaled Cabaret in its style and success is Chicago (1975) […]” (300). Lamb claims that:
[t]he production was notable for the way it continued to break down musical theatre conventions. The story unfolded on a multiple-purpose set as a sequence of vaudeville turns, with the traditional pit orchestra replaced by a jazz band perched high above the action. The conductor announced each of the turns, which included important dance sequences by director-choreographer Bob Fosse. (300-301)
This version bears the marks of the events of the sixties since it encompasses all kinds of “freedom,” which might occasionally turn into “taking liberties.” As an example for this latter, there is cursing, a rather strong language use and a lot of slang use. An example is when the Matron is called “Butch.” The 1975 version is the most lively and at the same time, surprising. From the point of view of the representation of female murderers, it is again of the same standing as the original drama. It is witty, ironic, and occasionally sardonic. It does not condemn its anti-heroines, it does not want to tame, domesticate or punish them. This is the version which celebrates these women most explicitly. Velma here gets a (quasi-) central role; in none of the earlier versions this female character becomes as important as here. Interesting to note that it is for the first time that the character of Hunyak takes on her ethnic identity: she speaks Hungarian openly and is claimed to be Hungarian; “othered” from the rest of the convicted mass, she also gets focus as the innocently executed immigrant figure, a counter-example to the evidently guilty female murderers of the story. The 2002 version builds on these, previous values.
According to Dawn B. Sova, after a slow climb back during the seventies, the eighties became a decade full of possibilities for women and their representation.
Women forced Hollywood to reopen its doors to them in the 1980s; positions from the boardroom to both sides of the camera could finally be called women’s work. They took over some of the most powerful jobs in town. Even on-screen roles were affected as more secure actresses rebelled against the meager “bimbo or bitch” choices offered them, and chose to write their own script, deepening the roles for women characters. […] In short, the 1980s signaled women’s return to the business aspect of the film industry for the first time since its infancy. (168)
This trend continued during the nineties. Sova calls this era the limitless decade (181-196). After the great success of Alien (1979) (and its succeeding parts) another significant milestone in the representation of violent women was The Silence of the Lambs (1991) with the character of Clarice Starling FBI agent. This film was a great success and empowered women and challenged the limiting categories of womanhood (Dole 86-89). The real turning point, however, was Thelma & Louise (1991). This film created a great controversy and heated debates on the subject of female aggression in general but, by all means, on screen. Barbara L. Miller calls this film “gun-in-the-handbag” film, a type of film typical of the early nineties. This film “portrayed a type of female empowerment that was possible only then. This type of empowerment simultaneously speaks to the limits of Hollywood conventions and the changing political and social attitudes of the early 1990s” (Miller 203). The male viewers and critics generally reacted to it with vehement aversion while female viewers and feminist critics praised it highly since it offer(ed) real role models for women; the film is considered to be one of the most important feminist landmarks (204).
After Thelma & Louise (1991), more and more other films dealing with female aggression and women’s violent behavior followed, for example, Basic Instinct (1992), Diabolique (1996) – both featuring Sharon Stone in murderous female roles. According to Susan Knobloch, Sharon Stone’s star image works both in a feminist way and as an antifeminist “backlash” (125). Also, “[i]n Stone’s work we can investigate the intersections of thirty years of recent feminism with the archetypal Hollywood figure of female violence, the ‘spider woman,’ or femme fatale” (126). Knobloch adds to this that “Stone’s mayhem-dealing characters at least flickeringly ‘true’ hearts and comprehensible minds, despite the evidence in her films that Hollywood still seems unable to conceive of a violent woman ─ a functioning fighter, a sexual object ─ who is fully ‘real’” (140). In Fargo (1996), the Coen brothers “ironized stereotypes about women through its sly representation of an ungainly but shrewd pregnant detective, and tested them by combining the traditionally separate qualities of toughness and nurturance” (Dole 90). Later, two films, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003) were built on the famous female video game character called Lara Croft. Kill Bill Vol.1-2. (2003, 2004) also followed just like a real-life story of a female serial killer named Aileen Wuornos that became dramatized on a film entitled Monster (2003). There is also Million Dollar Baby (2004) with the character of a female boxer, not to mention the numerous TV series and various TV films which (also) handle the question of female investigators, soldiers, and all sorts of violent women on either side of the law.
The Chicago (2002) version is the most complex adaptation of Watkins’s plot because it encompasses both the filmic and the theatrical “roots” in its dual storyline. The theatrical parts (the actual musical vaudeville pieces) are embedded in the cinematic text of Chicago (2002). Usually, in the case of a musical film, the ecstasy associated with musicals depends on the sensation of displacement; however, Chicago (2002) does not make a clear distinction (and displacement) between the narrative itself and the musical numbers; in spite of the blurring of registers, yet, there is an awareness of distinction which makes the whole musical work here (Belton 153). “Chicago opposes reality (the prison) and fantasy (the nightclub) through abrupt juxtapositions, but the editing also fuses the two worlds together,” writes Belton (153). This intermingling process, however, ends in the final number where: “[t]he basic pattern for the musical numbers in Chicago involves an alternation between reality and fantasy within the numbers themselves. This tension is resolved in the final number entitled ‘I Move On,’ when fantasy becomes reality” (153). This way, the narrative action itself takes place within the musical performance on stage thus turning fantasy into reality, as well as Roxie’s and Velma’s separate dreams into one actual partnership (153 -154). “The fundamental pattern of alternation between narrative and number that structures most musicals frequently moves toward an ecstatic resolution in the final musical number, but Chicago makes that pattern and process more explicit than other works of the genre” (154).
Chicago (2002) is a special, unusual musical combining the theme of murder with music within film. This version builds primarily on the 1975 vaudeville, thus, the merge of musical comedy and murder subject is recycled and not totally new in this musical film. The adaptation of the irony embedded in Watkins’s original play lies in the famous editing of the film, which is a masterpiece in itself (not only from the point of view of Belton’s considerations). This film – in its complexity and in its ways of adapting the original script – remains true to the spirit of Watkins’s message and while fascinates viewers with its flamboyance and exuberance it also provides a sardonic and sharp critique of the narrating and narrated times. It is a double-edged sword because through the mechanisms of the musical the viewers are channeled to partly forget the fact that it is about murder and vile women; at the same time, the representation of aggressive women through the musical genre lessens the prejudices against them. The image of female murderers is unquestionably positive in this film and allies with the politically correct notions of the current times that witness the amelioration of the modes, methods, traditions and representation of most violent, mean, murderous, fallen, unconventional, unruly and even vile women.
The third millennium is an age in which cinema, as opposed to the Code era, celebrates female murderers and violent women of all sorts. Could it be the case that we have reached the time when the representation of aggressive women exceeds the old clichés of vamp and/or femme fatale? Recent cinemas hold a lot of potential for changes in the representation of violent women and it seems that the filmic output “strengthens” new images of contemporary women’s lives (stories), where “women move away from the moral (and nonviolent) purity of the Victorian ‘Cult of True Womanhood’ and onto men’s turf ─ police work, military service, and a growing self-defense movement” (King and McCaughey 5).
What comes next in the filmic world regarding women and aggression related to women is an open question. As King and McCaughey write:
Some of the films with violent women will be co-opted: racist, homophobic, procapitalist, nationalist. Others will be feminist, queer, or antiracist. We hope that all of these violent women frighten people who snicker at women’s protests. Whatever their roots in male fantasies, their places in dominant orders, or their distance from real lives, may these images at least subvert the notion that women will suffer abuse patiently. (19-20)
These films should be “possible tools in the liberation of women from racial, class, gender, and other political constraints that oppress women and deny them equal chances and equal rights” (20) on and off the screen.
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