History films were a highly popular genre in the 1990s, as Hollywood looked back at significant and troubling episodes from World War II, the Cold War era, and the techno-war in the Persian Gulf. As filmmakers attempted to confront and manage intractable elements of the American past, such as the trauma of war and the legacy of racism, Susan Linville argues that a surprising casualty occurred—the erasure of relevant facets of contemporary women's history.
In this book, Linville offers a sustained critique of the history film and its reduction of women to figures of ambivalence or absence. Historicizing and adapting Freud's concept of the uncanny and its relationship to the maternal body as the first home, she offers theoretically sophisticated readings of the films Midnight Clear, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Nixon, Courage Under Fire, Lone Star, and Limbo. She also demonstrates that the uncanny is not only a source of anxiety but also potentially a progressive force for eroding nostalgic ideals of nation and gender. Linville concludes with a close reading of a recent 9/11 documentary, showing how the patterns and motifs of 1990s history films informed it and what that means for our future.
Chapter 1. Remembering World War II: Aesthetics and Gender in the Combat Film of the 1990s
Chapter 2. Standing Pat: The First Lady in Oliver Stone's Nixon
Chapter 3. "The Mother of All Battles": Courage Under Fire and the Gender-Integrated Military
Chapter 4. "Forget the Alamo": Lone Star, Limbo, and the Limits of the Nation
Bibliography and Filmography
Near the beginning of William Shakespeare's play The Tempest, Prospero instructs his daughter Miranda for the first time about his past and, in passing, about her own. She has been watching a harrowing sea storm and shipwreck, a physically harmless piece of magic that Prospero has created to rectify history, but one so overwhelming that Miranda is quick with sympathy for its human victims. The tempest and Prospero's inquiries about what Miranda remembers of her early childhood, what "house or person," prompt the young woman to ask two questions, queries which Carol Gilligan astutely paraphrases as "Why all the suffering?" and "Where are the women?" Prospero's reply reflects his interest in justifying his present actions as remedies for past injustices—"what's past is prologue," as his traitorous brother Antonio will later say—but as Gilligan notes, Prospero's account fails to do justice to Miranda's curiosity, memory, and desire. In the course of the play, Miranda herself learns to forget her own initial questions, and her education about her father's past forms the groundwork of her forgetting. Her future marriage (and, extradiegetically, that of ill-fated Princess Elizabeth, daughter of James I) is celebrated in another illusion staged by Prospero, a wedding masque that dramatizes Miranda's regenerative role through fertility imagery of the goddess Ceres while stressing her function as the ligature binding feuding political factions. Yet the marriage that Prospero arranges, though it recaptures and consolidates political power and identity, comes at the expense of Miranda's grasp of a history that encompasses women, their sense of home, and their ties to each other.
In a similar fashion, the narration of U.S. history through cinematic illusion was a paramount interest of Hollywood moviemakers in the closing decade of the twentieth century, as evidenced by their production of numerous films concerning World War II, the American presidency, and other history-based topics. Yet rarely did these films find compelling answers to the questions "Where are the women?" and "Why all the suffering?" Film scholars in turn focused their attention on Hollywood's drawing on history for its subject matter, and they generated original, highly illuminating studies on the topic, including Robert A. Rosenstone's Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History (1995), Vivian Sobchack's anthology The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television, and the Modern Event (1996), Robert Burgoyne's Film Nation: Hollywood Looks at U.S. History (1997), and Marcia Landy's anthology The Historical Film: History and Memory in Media (2000), as well as influential work by Fredric Jameson, Hayden White, and others. Moreover, pioneering feminist film scholars, such as Susan Jeffords and Lucy Fischer, made critical inroads in demonstrating the disproportionate burden of blame women and the feminine have borne in film narratives that seek both to reflect and deflect masculine trauma in the wake of war. Yet where women's history is concerned, a spectrum of critical issues remains underexamined, underacknowledged, and underexplored.
By taking Miranda's questions as a central focus, this book aims to address some of these gaps. More precisely, I propose to examine a series of significant cinematic depictions of twentieth-century American history—films from the 1990s whose subjects range from World War II, to the cold war, to contemporary techno-warfare and globalization—in order to chart the narrative and aesthetic means by which they both evoke and elide perspectives on the changing place of women. As will become apparent, I am especially interested in exploring the uncanny as a complex psychological and aesthetic mode that both subtly and overtly informs the gender portrayals these films create, as well as in identifying the diverse political visions the uncanny can serve. These range from the forgetting of women's multifaceted historical trajectory—and especially the role of the women's movement—in the name of a nostalgic ideal of nation, to the radical erosion of the very gender identities on which that retrograde ideal depends.
To be sure, although I contend that Hollywood cinema often replays a pattern of erasure of women's place in history that is at least as old as The Tempest, it is worth emphasizing that, according to Jameson, Hollywood history films of recent decades do not confine the erasure to women's history; they extend it to history per se. That is, in his words, the genre of the historical film "with its surface sheen of a period fashion reality [offers] a formal compensation for the enfeeblement of historicity in our own time, and as it were a glossy fetish in the service of that unsatisfied craving." Although this insight is provocative, Jameson's development of it overlooks significant gendered dynamics within a larger process.
One of these is gender's function as the "glossy fetish" par excellence through which history is jettisoned—for example, in films that honor, elevate, and celebrate iconic versions of women (as symbols of a nation, as mothers, and as first ladies) within narrative trajectories that deracinate and derealize them as historical entities. A second and related dynamic, previously mentioned, is the creation of historical erasure within the aesthetic mode of the uncanny or unhomey, a mode that resembles the process of fetishization insofar as it relies on repression and forgetting for its effects, yet that also activates the dread, anxiety, and identity destructuration that a meeting with the repressed can arouse. In this context, uncanny moments often reduce women to eerie dolls and abject monsters, beings stirring repressed memories of both womb and tomb. As I also intend to demonstrate, however, the uncanny can alternatively serve as a springboard to unconventional cultural critique and to the engendering of less masculinist depictions of the past.
In a further, related dynamic, the evasion of women's history is implicated in the management of other social groups and social histories in recent films, a dynamic that, again, eerily echoes elements from The Tempest, with its reliance on Miranda as a conduit for justifying a patrilineal, heterosexual, Eurocentric hierarchy. That is, films about the past glimpse at histories of cultural groups for whom the ambiguously gendered Ariel, the powerful Algerian "witch" Sycorax, and her feared son Caliban can be seen as stand-ins, yet often shape and wield them in the name of protecting a politicized ideal of womanhood.4 An additional important example is the gender-specific means by which profit-motivated, image-generating corporations provide women—like the fetishized Rachel in the cult film Blade Runner (1982)—with implanted memories that allow them limited power and self-representation; memories often designed, as in Rachel's case, in a way that supplants women's actual histories and belies the larger reality of their "home." Finally, in a dynamic related to all of these, there is the pattern in which women form structuring narrative absences, in the manner of the "fallen" woman Hero in Much Ado about Nothing. That is, a woman is metaphorically buried alive, and then ultimately returned, redeemed, or resurrected, her narrative absence having structured the resolutions of men's conflicts over power, identity, and hierarchy, the very conflicts that, as often as not, made her "death" necessary in the first place.
While such broad generalizations as these forecast some of my key concerns, they also beg for further exemplification and explanation, and perhaps no films better illustrate the patterns in question here than the classics of the 1950s, specifically Singin' in the Rain (Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952), The Searchers (John Ford, 1956), and Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958). The latter two, along with two films from the decade on which my study focuses—the ostensibly more equitable 1990s—provide especially revealing examples in the context of the present study and will serve as entry points to my larger subject. The 1990s films I shall consider here are the much-debated, wildly popular Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994) and the politically provocative Bulworth (Warren Beatty, 1998).
Lacking the patina of gender and ethnic equality that characterizes much Hollywood cinema of the 1990s, The Searchers and Vertigo provide models that are the more telling because of their relatively more transparent evocation and elision of women's history as a means of managing a range of intractable problems from the past. Generically disparate, these two films nonetheless share concerns with traumatic history and conflicted identity boundaries, centrally symbolized in female characters. Set in post-Civil War Texas, 1868-1873, The Searchers narrates a quest to recover Debbie Edwards (Natalie Wood), the niece of embittered ex-Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), by Ethan and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), her adoptive brother. Debbie's captor, a Comanche chief named Scar (Henry Brandon in "racial drag"), bears responsibility for the killing of her family and the rape of her mother, whom Ethan loved and desired; when Debbie comes of age, Scar takes her as a wife. Sexually and racially "contaminated" in Ethan's eyes, her identity becomes the subject of fierce conflict between him and Marty, with her life and possible reintegration into the "Texican" community of her childhood hanging in the balance. The battle over who Debbie is is played out in the sublime and sacred Native American landscape of Monument Valley, and is also powerfully embedded in images of archways, cave openings, and rock cleavages, uncanny formations that visually rhyme the earth as mother, the sexualized female body, and the film's various thresholds of "home," from the settler's homestead to the native's teepee.
Within this symbolically charged world, Debbie functions as the displaced and recovered, fractured then healed, symbol of the uncanny home that makes Ethan as hero possible. And through Ethan's quest for and recovery of Debbie, the film evokes and seeks to contain not only the bloody history of conquest and civil war that gave birth to the nation in the nineteenth century, but also anxieties about race, gender, and miscegenation born of the 1950s, fears exacerbated by Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka (1954) and the school desegregation it mandated. To achieve symbolic mastery of this legacy, however, the film conspicuously sacrifices Debbie's own desire and coherence. That is, although Debbie initially refuses rescue and insists that her home is with the Comanches, barely escaping Ethan's bullets in the process, in the film's climax she readily agrees to leave with Marty when he sneaks into her teepee, and after Ethan's dramatic recognition of her and change of heart, is spared and taken "home." Brian Henderson rightly contends, "The text itself rides roughshod over Debbie by making her change her mind . . . a conspicuously unmotivated act in a film that elsewhere supplies too many motives."
If Debbie's captivity story lacks crucial motivation, strikingly, the film itself calls attention not to this absence but to the missing causality in a secondary story, that of her counterpart "Look" (Native American Beulah Archuletta), the ample-bodied Comanche wife whom Marty unwittingly acquires while doing trade with her family. After some terrible humor at her expense, Ethan and Marty impel Look to go find Scar; when the men eventually catch up with her, she has been killed by U.S. soldiers on an apparent terrorist raid. Her death prompts Marty's poignant questions about her destiny and desires, whether she sought to warn Scar's people or to find Debbie for him. As he calls attention both to her innocence and to the lack of satisfactory answers, the scene reveals her body lying in a teepee, its entrance a significant iteration of the threshold motif. In this moment, The Searchers comes as close to a direct confrontation with U.S. destruction of the Native American population and culture as it ever dares.
Yet in her story, too, there are crucial displacements, shaped by the fact that looking and looking back are defining prerogatives for Ethan—sources of unspeakable sexual knowledge and obsessive self-motivation. Hard on the heels of this scene centered on Look, the sight of traumatized white women and girls, recovered from the Comanches by the army, prompts Ethan's famous look back in horror, an act that epitomizes the motivation for his quest even as it enforces the film's shift in focus from Look as victim to the Euro-Americans. In keeping with this symbolic logic, Look is not just a casualty of Ethan's quest; like Lot's wife, she is punished for looking back, but in this case, looking back at the white man's behest. Moreover, she becomes both a sacrificial object of Ethan's obsessive retrospection and a woman whose death substitutes for Debbie's, in yet another displacement that makes Ethan as hero possible.
Janet Walker forcefully argues that traumatic Westerns such as The Searchers "represent the massacre of American Indians as the massacre of settlers" and thereby "represent indirectly a historical reality they cannot really justify: the conquest of Native Americans and the appropriation of their land." My reading of the functions of Look and Debbie identifies the critical role of Native and Euro-American female characters in effecting these problematic transpositions. Reinforcing this view is the broader historical resonance of the film's deployment of Look and Debbie as symbols. A large Native American woman, similar in build to Look, served as a European and Euro-American symbol of America as early as the sixteenth century. She was sometimes known as L'Amérique or the Indian Princess and was often portrayed wearing a feathered headdress and perched on an alligator-like reptile. A precursor of Lady Liberty, the Indian Princess became slimmer and increasingly Europeanized by the time of the American Revolution, and in the course of the nineteenth century (and well before Disney's Princess Pocahontas), she evolved a persona with the look of a beauty queen. By the time of The Searchers, she is movie star Natalie Wood, costumed as a squaw who anachronistically wears lipstick.
Like The Searchers,Vertigo too reveals how Hollywood historiography has depicted and situated female characters in ways that simultaneously call up and conceal broader constellations of historically determined problems, especially those that emerge from the nation's complex ethnic, racial, and economic legacy. It reveals, as well, how such historiography tends to evoke and disguise these problems through a heroine constructed to fit a hero-centered narrative. At times, the process is not one of reducing a complex set of identity differences to the difference of gender, but rather a practice of voiding women's identity of its complex historical, ethnic, and class specificity and thereby effecting other forms of evocation and erasure as well. In fact, Vertigo, as a product of the era nostalgically viewed as America's "golden age," offers an especially illuminating instance of this practice.
A fictional overlay on a fictional overlay, the film centers on the deception of Scottie (James Stewart), a former detective who is duped into thinking he is protecting the beautiful blonde Madeleine, ostensible descendant and double of the mad Carlotta Valdez, from insanity and suicide. Although the film represents the ancestral Carlotta as a "real," aristocratic-looking person and part of local San Francisco history, she is in fact a fictionalized double of the historical wife of Maximilian (1832-1867), archduke of Austria, a man installed as emperor of Mexico in 1864 under the mistaken belief that he had been elected, and later, despite his wife's vigorous and wide-reaching efforts to prevent it, executed when he refused to abdicate. As a result of his execution and her grief over his death, this Carlota (so spelled) spent the remaining sixty years of her life living in a chateau in her home country of Belgium in a state of madness.
The complex intersection of Mexican, European, Native American, and U.S. history that the film's construction of "Madeleine" draws on need not be fully recounted here, but the "bleaching" of identity that the film and its protagonist execute deserves commentary, since it reflects how history is deracinated through the person of the woman on the border. The historical fact that Carlota was the daughter of Belgium's Leopold I in effect legitimizes the film's creation of a blonde Spanish woman—congruent with Hitchcock's and 1950s North American fantasy ideals—even though the film's Carlotta Valdez lived in a California that, though part of Mexico, was home to few actual descendants of the Spaniards. Judy (Kim Novak), the woman hired to play Madeleine, must herself be transformed into the era's and director's northern European blonde ideal, and that ideal, like the film's Carlotta, symbolically exists on multiple borders. These include the boundaries between respectability and illegitimacy, nobility and destitution, the U.S. and Mexico, an interchangeable past and present—but especially between reality and illusion, sanity and delusion, the living and the dead.
The setting and aesthetic look of the film, which draw on the protosurrealist work of Giorgio de Chirico, reinforces this sense, and as Helen Gardner notes, de Chirico's work takes inspiration from the historical past, infusing its locales with "a mood of intense and mysterious melancholy . . . a foreboding sense of departure and of a time long past yet always present" (emphasis added). Hitchcock replaces the squares, arcades, and palaces of Roman and Renaissance Italy seen in de Chirico's early work, and the towers of his Tower Series, with shots of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the mission at San Juan Batista and other settings, relying on framings, points of view, and embellishments to make the film's visual architecture uncannily resemble de Chirico's. Hitchcock's handling of mise-en-scène evokes, spatializes, and reconfigures the layers of Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo history in a manner that complements Judy/Madeleine/Carlotta's function, and together these elements represent the past that haunts the film's tragic "all-American" protagonist. The history to which they allude becomes the mirror of his haunted, fragmented, modernist inner self. If history is what haunts us—and is therefore "what hurts," in Jameson's famous formulation—then perhaps we should speak of two histories here. One is Scottie's psychological history, the basis of the film's manifest content—to play on Freud's ideas of manifest and latent dream content—and the other is the social, ethnic, and gender history that informs the film's latent content and its "political unconscious" (in Jameson's words); that is, the "colorful" past before it was reduced to Madeleine's platinum blonde swirl and pale gray suit. Thus, just as The Searchers transforms Debbie into a fetishized substitute for history, Vertigo homogenizes the past through the fetish of Madeleine, and both women serve reductively subsumptive functions.
More recently, in a 1990s film that is ostensibly more "about" history, Jenny (Robin Wright), Forrest Gump's childhood sweetheart in the film that bears his name, serves both as a resonant symbol of a key facet of women's history—the kind of abuse and suffering that helped motivate the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s—and, simultaneously, as an example of how Hollywood cinema conjures up then empties out women's history in order to serve socioeconomic ends not at all women's own. In a visually striking scene set in the 1970s, Jenny and Forrest (Tom Hanks), the film's simpleminded, picaresque hero, return to the small farmhouse in Alabama where her "white trash" father had physically and sexually abused her as a small child. Releasing years of pent up rage about what she endured at his hands—and at the hands of most of the men in her adult life as well—she throws first her sandals and then all the stones she can find at the empty house, shattering its windows, and finally collapses in a heap in front of the dreaded "home" that she never fully managed to escape, despite her engagement with what the film presents as counterculture rebellion, including protest against the Vietnam War. Through a juxtaposition of the emotionally crippled Jenny with the house, the sequence evokes Christina's World (figure I.1), Andrew Wyeth's 1948 painting of Christina Olson, a woman who was physically crippled from the time of her childhood on.
It thereby heightens the pathos of Jenny's unfulfilled dreams by raising them to the more general level of a resonant symbol of a longing for and simultaneous exclusion from "home"—a move that mirrors Terrence Malick's citation of the painting in Days of Heaven (1978) as well. Although Jenny, unlike Christina, faces the viewer, the film's quotation of Wyeth is nonetheless reinforced by Jenny's pose, her slender limbs, and her childhood closeness with the formerly leg brace-bound Gump, whom she often urged to run to safety. It is also reinforced by the shot's ambiguous blend of loss and longing and its complication of attitudes toward America's so-called golden age, ambiguity counterpointed in the original by Wyeth's infusion of his realist style with a feeling of abstract expressionist introspection and a sense of home as a place that is always already unhomey, inherently its own eerie opposite. A few scenes later, Jenny is tied to an even more recognizable, historically resonant American symbol: she and an image of the Statue of Liberty—associated here with the celebration of the American bicentennial in 1976—are juxtaposed when it appears on a television in Forrest's home, and Jenny holds her hand up in a pose that echoes, with a difference, the raised arm of Liberty.
Yet, even though the film visually generalizes Jenny's situation, it fails to acknowledge the ways in which women's history in the 1960s and 1970s is centrally about collective efforts to solve the problems that her antinostalgic story instantiates. The film's only direct allusion to the women's movement comes when an African-American woman reporter asks Forrest, now a celebrity runner, why he is spending his days traversing the nation. Is he running for world peace or for women's rights? she queries. Although he provides no real answer—"I just felt like running," he claims—the film's visuals do when the sequence cuts to a shot of him running in a logo tee shirt on which both "Nike" and its ubiquitous swoosh are emblazoned, the ostensible tokens of Jenny, since his Nike running shoes were her gift to him. In the logic of images that jumps from Christina's World to the Statue of Liberty to Nike—all tied to Jenny—the film advances Nike as the unabashedly commercial culmination point; in context, the preeminent symbol of freedom and a synonym of the American nation, borne by Forrest as he crisscrosses the country's beautiful vistas—Monument Valley among them—moving to a film score of exuberantly rhythmic rock music, while Jenny herself catches news of him on yet another television, as she waits tables in a restaurant.
At the level of character motivation, Forrest's running has been spurred by Jenny's departure from his home; she had sought refuge there from the excesses and disillusionment of the disco scene, but then felt compelled to move on, leaving behind the gift of Nikes (a product he happily endorses as "the best gift anyone could get in the wide world"). Nonetheless, the central motivation for the symbolism is unmistakable. What here almost literally boots out women's history generally, and even upstages Jenny's personal story as Forrest's soul mate, is a consumer emblem in a virtual television infomercial. More precisely, what both displaces women's history and serves as a synonym for American freedom is a multinational corporation with a notorious history of paying slave wages to its employees—overwhelmingly women—working in sweatshops located in Vietnam, Indonesia, and China. (Cynthia Enloe's comments about the militarization of shoes heightens the irony here: "A pair of sneakers is militarized to the extent that the women who are sewing those sneakers [in China, Indonesia, or Vietnam] have their wages kept low because major brand corporations and their factory contractors hire former military men as their managers, call on local militarized security forces to suppress workers' organizing, or ally with governments who define the absence of women workers' independent organizing as necessary for 'national security.'") Finally, in Forrest Gump, "Nike," a female-gendered symbol of victory in ancient Greece, no longer bears any trace of its own history either.
To appreciate the depth of the irony of the configuration of questions and images that this sequence contains, it is useful to go back to the historical record and specifically to the position paper circulated at the event that was the inaugural public act of second-wave feminist protest, the "No More Miss America" demonstration held in August 1968. Contrary to caricatures of late-1960s feminism, this paper is neither theoretically unsophisticated nor essentializing, but is instead a complex, nonreductionist assessment of the intersections of sexism, racism, consumer culture, and militarism. It sharply criticizes not only the pageant's objectification of women but also the lack of racial and ethnic diversity among its winners, including its lack of "a true Miss America—an American Indian." Further, the position paper indicts the routine use of Miss America as a "walking commercial for the Pageant's sponsors," who plugs their products on television and promotional tours, and it censures the ways in which she was used to promote U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, where, as the "highlight of her reign," she was sent "to pep-talk our husbands, fathers, sons and boyfriends into dying and killing with a better spirit. She personifies the 'unstained patriotic American womanhood our boys are fighting for.'" In sum, the position paper's larger vision offers a framework that could elucidate the connections among the film's African-American woman reporter, the Vietnamese woman who might have made the running shoes Hanks wears, and Jenny herself. That is to say, it offers exactly what Forrest Gump does not, a telling critical perspective on the intersecting historical problems affecting women during the era traversed by the film. Nike's mid-1990's ad campaign, based on images of women's empowerment, makes the ironies noted here all the more acute.
If Chicano and Mexican-American histories are simultaneously evoked and erased through an aestheticized blonde ideal in Hitchcock's film, and the history of the women's movement is both conjured up and concealed in Forrest Gump, African-American women's history is alluded to and elided through an ideal of young, black, womanly beauty in Beatty's Bulworth. Nina (Halle Berry), the woman in question, exists as an amalgamation of those qualities that serve the needs of theme, plot, and character instead of as a coherently conceived dramatis persona, and in this regard she resembles Debbie in The Searchers, Jenny in Forrest Gump, and women characters in numerous historically based films. Specifically, Nina combines roles as (1) a hip-hop woman; (2) an assassin's assistant, hired to help kill U.S. Senator Bulworth (Beatty) by a stereotyped Italian crime figure, who is being paid by none other than the despairing Bulworth himself; (3) an exquisitely attractive, very much younger love interest for Bulworth, a man who is unaware that she is trying to set him up and who develops second thoughts about dying; (4) an articulate Marxist political savant whose mother was a Black Panther; and finally, (5) a family-identified daughter and sister, who agrees to set Bulworth up so that she can pay off her brother's debt to a local gang leader and thereby save his life.
It is possible to see this portrait as an improvement over the consignment of African-American women and girls to what Jacquie Jones calls the "accusatory space" of the black ghetto film—an emphatically sidelined position that serves as a reproach to young black females for the troubled lives of young black males. "Somehow," Jones explains, "these girls seemed to me to exist in the space of the accused. After all, according to the news of the early eighties, it was those teenage, female-headed households that produced those boys." Yet, if Nina's diverse traits and less marginal position, along with Berry's fine performance, potentially make for a more complex and less stereotypical portrait, the film itself fails to connect all the character dots. Nina articulates an astute political analysis of a host of problems besetting contemporary African Americans, but only in a single scene is she given this strong political voice, and it is a scene that centers on a conversation with Bulworth in the romantically lit backseat of a limo.
Nostalgically reflecting on a time when young black people knew who Huey Newton was, Bulworth asks her, "Why do you think there are no more black leaders?" Nina's response makes it clear that she knows not only who Huey Newton was but also the impact of the assassination of black leaders on American politics. As she develops her answer, she also explains how, in contemporary America, issues of race and class merge, how the increasing globalization of capital has moved jobs away from U.S. urban centers into the third world, undermining the urban black political base, and how consumerism militates against the self-sacrifice that social progress requires. Further, she spotlights how the present-day increase in media monopolies curtails cultural opportunities and limits the expression of alternative visions. The film would have us believe, however, that at the time its events take place—the 1996 elections—well-publicized debates about the culturally specific forms of sexism in the Black Panther Party, in gangster rap, in ghetto-based films, and in the idea of the 1995 Million Man March would register not so much as a blip on Nina's highly informed political consciousness, or that she would revere the name of Huey Newton and the memory of her own Black Panther mother but fail even to mention women such as Angela Davis, Elaine Brown, or bell hooks. The scene thus affords a variant on the kind of forgetting of women's historical interconnections that is played out in Miranda's history lesson in The Tempest's second scene. By the end of her speech, Nina has become not so much the voice of the black community or a credible female emblem of black nationalism, as a kind of ventriloquist's doll, reciting the white filmmaker's male-centered view of black history in America.
If Nina's voice nevertheless provides lessons in history and politics for Bulworth, who for once is nearly silent (but later appropriates Nina's lesson in a media appearance), it is she herself who is finally reduced to near silence by the film's end. At this point, Bulworth wants her to follow him out of her family's ghetto home and into the media spotlight. She does, and the two kiss seconds before he is assassinated by the interest group (insurance) that his new political stance has most pointedly offended. In the moment before the assassination, the romance plot comes dangerously close to reducing Nina not only to a silent love interest, but, in effect, to something like the prone position that Stokely Carmichael notoriously said was the only one open to women in the Black Panther Party. Specifically, Nina reassures the racially insecure sixty-year-old Bulworth by saying "you're my nigger" just before their last kiss. She thereby confirms his "black" masculinity, creating a dissonant echo of the kind of confirmation that some Black Panther leaders, motivated by a specific history of castrations, emasculation, and lynchings, had demanded of black women; along with it (in the revealing vocabulary of the film's preamble), Nina confirms Bulworth's distinctive ability as a politician able to get the populace "aroused." In this way, Nina is defined more by the requirements of Beatty's politics and plot—and by Bulworth's black-phallus-envy-driven developmental trajectory—than by internal coherence or by black women's historical experience vis-à-vis white men in America. (Bulworth's assassination further doubles him with black men; in this case, with the martyrs whom he has admired and sought partly to emulate.)
The requirements of Beatty's plot and politics are also reflected by his desire to make Bulworth into an often comic but ultimately perceptive white version of a homey or homeboy, a part with a dress code he adopts while he is in Nina's neighborhood, where he also plays a kind of Shakespearean fool. To be sure, there has probably never been a more unhomey homey than Beatty. Yet his odd presence and behavior underscore the unheimlich (unhomey) aspects of Nina's neighborhood as home, and to the film's credit, it conveys this point in some telling effects. Nina's extended family lives in a house that is warmly lit and comfortable on the inside but surrounded by dangers that also make it seem like a prison. Strangely enough, those dangers take the shape of little African-American boys of five or six, children who, along with slightly older boys, "soldier" surreal, steely blue nighttime streets, packing guns and dealing drugs in a virtual third-world setting. The boys are so young that, when they threaten Bulworth, he can easily buy them off with ice cream cones, a humorous move that converts them back to children and ironically spares him from Nina's bullets as well.
For her part, Nina brings Bulworth to her home to set him up for the hit. When one of her family members, not knowing her aim, admonishes her not to become involved with this white man and to remember the destructive consequences of a similar involvement for her mother, Nina protests that she has something else in mind, and at this point, she still does. But the narrative also recalls an old pattern of African-American women offering sexual appeasement to white men in order to protect their families from harm. Safiya Bukhari-Alston's historical perspective illuminates this issue. Focusing on the ways in which the legacy of slavery shapes ideas of gender, she explains, "Since [Black men] had been stripped of their manhood in every way but the ability to 'pleasure' women and make babies, the sexual act soon became the measure by which the Black man measured his manhood. The Black women worked right alongside the Black man in the field and she worked in the Master's house. The Black man could not defend or protect his family, while in most cases the Black woman was the one who defended or protected the family from the slavemaster's wrath by any means necessary."23 The film, then, glimpses historically and racially specific forms of literal unhominess, rooted in the black slave woman's role in the master's home and the white man's place in hers, yet it also romances away that legacy's relationship to the surreal, third-world quality of contemporary ghetto life.
What the four examples just examined share, in addition to a pattern of displacing women's history, are diverse, historically specific forms of uncanniness. That is, all four films envision versions of the home—and by extension, particular images of the nation—as an unheimlich (strange, weird, or disquieting) place whose strangeness stems from past events that the narratives aim to master. Moreover, each seeks mastery precisely through a complex, equivocal, reductive symbolization of women. In each case, women become identified with sites of conflict—from the thresholds of the Western homestead, teepee, and landscape in The Searchers, to Judy/Madeleine/Carlotta's various haunts in Vertigo, and from the abandoned farmhouse of Jenny's childhood, remembered as the dreaded site of abuse in Forrest Gump, to Nina's neighborhood in Bulworth, a place turned inside out, in her view, by the globalization of capital but also made strange by the presence of Bulworth himself. And in each case, it is the process of not telling women's histories that makes possible women's deployment in these narratives as symbolic answers, identified with these sites, to the needs of narrative and hence national identity. Yet just as women's lack of distinct histories and their resulting fragmentary status are preconditions for their iconic functions in "solving" problems of identity rooted in the past, so, too, are they part and parcel of women's obverse roles, as signs of identity's mutability, incoherence, and uncanniness. In short, besides being intended to help solidify ideas of home and nation, women in history films can serve as synonyms for a legacy of division, displacement, and ambivalence.
If this formulation of the unhomey seems a closed loop, a further shift in historical perspective can lead to a view of how these same sites crystallize the intractable, often overlooked unhominess of the home for women, whose place traditionalists claim that it should be. As will become evident, the trajectory of the theory of the uncanny, from its origins in Freud, through feminist revisions of the 1970s and 1980s, and on to more recent cultural studies reworkings, is one in which a problematic concept has been recuperated, fostering alternative understandings of narrative and aesthetics along with powerful critiques of standard narrative practices. At stake is an expansion of Freud's original concepts of the unheimlich into an extremely valuable framework for conceptualizing the historical and symbolic positioning of women in film. In the chapters ahead, I shall explore the concept of the historical unheimlich in greater detail and use it to bring various problems of film and history into focus. My goal here, however, is to introduce basic tenets of theories of the uncanny and to provide a brief overview of their development during the last century.
By Susan E. Linville
Susan E. Linville is Director of the Film Studies Program and Associate Professor of English at the University of Colorado at Denver.
"Linville takes a highly original angle on the subject of women and historical representation in film, arguing that the concept of the Freudian uncanny provides a way of characterizing and explaining the structuring absence or the ambivalent characterization of women in a genre that has become increasingly important to national self-definition. . . . I find her argument to be complex, subtle, and illuminating." —Robert Burgoyne, Wayne State University, author of Film Nation: Hollywood Looks at U.S. History