First Gothic Feminism conference: May 2016
Conference Closing Remarks
A huge thank you to everyone who presented and participated at the Gothic Feminism conference on the 26th-27th May 2016. We have had a great two days discussing and debating the diversity of topics raised by considering the Gothic heroine on film. We are particularly pleased with the way the papers related to each other within their respective panels, and are grateful to our speakers and audience members for engaging in lively conversations in every session.
There are several points arising out of the conference which should be noted as a record of the event and as a way of inspiring future projects. First, the conference emphasised again the importance of the heroine protagonist to the Gothic mode and how this form of storytelling intersects with wider historical and social discourses, particularly in relation to feminism. This theme was illuminated by the fascinating keynote delivered by Catherine Spooner, which reflected upon the representation and significance of the white dress; a central emblem present in several Gothic texts, including the recent Crimson Peak (2015). Catherine’s talk skilfully encapsulated the underlying tone and themes of the other papers: taken together, the papers acknowledged the long and diverse traditions of the Gothic and the Gothic heroine, and reflected upon the renewed possibilities of furthering such traditions on the cinema screen. The papers all, in one form or another, raised the central questions of: why does the Gothic heroine continue to be such an important and distinctive component to these stories? And how has cinema translated these Gothic traits for the filmic medium?
Opening the conference, Catherine’s paper reflected upon how the Gothic heroine’s white dress does not stay white over the course of the tale and instead becomes marked and stained, with this tainting becoming a trace for the heroine’s narrative exploits. Such physical markings can also be, Catherine argued, read metaphorically within a narrative’s historical contexts. Now the conference has closed we can see how these opening remarks can, in a way, be read as a metatextual commentary on the subsequent papers. The white dress becomes an allegory for the Gothic itself which also does not remain the same: just like the progressive soiling of the white garment, the Gothic has changed or been transformed by external factors, such as differing narrative arcs, political or historical contexts, alternative exhibition practices and the adaptation of unusual genres. The centrality of the Gothic heroine, however, remains the constant. Catherine remarked how the white dress becomes the metaphoric page upon which the heroine’s story is ‘written’. There is an analogy here with the definition of the Gothic widely supported by all the papers at the conference: the Gothic becomes the means through which the heroine’s story is told and the implications of this trend were highlighted in a variety of ways across the presentations.
If Crimson Peak was heralded in several papers as an important contemporary example of the cinematic Gothic, then Rebecca (1940) was widely cited as its starting point. As our first panel ‘Return to Manderley’ aptly demonstrated, discussions of the Gothic heroine in cinema return constantly to Hitchcock’s film and the new Mrs de Winter (or, as Johanna Wagner referred to her, Nameless). There were two major significances arising from the continued reference to the Daphne du Maurier adaptation. First, the film functions as a historical marker which indicates how the Gothic became an important mode of storytelling for cinema but – importantly – to relate such discussion back to this point is not to ignore the wider traditions influencing this form. Indeed, several papers cited how this particular strand of the Gothic originates from the Bluebeard tale and thus this tradition of the Gothic focuses upon the heroine’s relationship to her mysterious and dangerous husband, a reading which can be extended to reflect upon wider societal patriarchal structures. It is interesting that this conference, much like the previous scholarship on the Gothic in film has argued, also observed how such a narrative was adapted and repeated by Hollywood in the period leading up to the USA’s involvement in the Second World War. Maxim’s stately house therefore becomes the metaphoric home for Bluebeard’s translation onto the big screen and into film history.
Second, it is poignant that Rebecca denies its central heroine a name as this conference demonstrated the shifting parameters of identity afforded to the Gothic’s female protagonist. Many factors may impact the representation and reception of the heroine’s identity. For example, as the panel on ‘Mothers’ highlighted, transforming the Gothic heroine from the childlike naivety of Nameless in the 1940s into the role of mother central to the films later in the century (and into the 21st Century) radically reforms the power dynamics between the heroine and the structures of oppression highlighted by the Bluebeard tale. In this instance, the heroine may not fear her husband but, instead, her motherhood becomes a potential tool of oppression, with the child (or children) embodying the physical danger present in these films.
The heroine’s identity may also be effected by the story’s context and relationship to space. This was a consistent theme which ran through the remaining panels. The interpretation of the Gothic heroine is inextricably linked to the context of the narrative’s setting and time of production, and these factors may vary quite considerably. In fact, the conference demonstrated how the Gothic may be adopted by a broad range of genres, from the western to science-fiction to 21st Century urban dramas. The Gothic may continue to be relevant to US context but is also present in film texts emerging from Britain, Germany and Australia. The physical dimensions of the archetypal old dark house may alter in these instances but its function remains the same: the Gothic heroine explores these physical spaces and the course of her investigation will expose how such locations can be both repressive and liberating. Interestingly, the conference also highlighted how it is not just the space on-screen which is important: the implicit off-screen space – in the form of alternative sites of exhibition – are also relevant. The conference revealed how the more recent articulations of the Gothic heroine have been adapted for the television drama, comedy series and film festival circuits. The mutability of the Gothic form in film was underlined again by the videographic works which showed how the Gothic narrative may be subsumed into the short film format, or extrapolated for the purposes of a film essay.
The Passages of Gothic work is, in a sense, emblematic of the research which inspired the organisation of this event. As I mentioned in my opening address, Gothic Feminism is the culmination of years of work researching, teaching and studying the trends and tropes of the representation of the Gothic heroine in cinema by Tamar and myself, as well as other researchers in the Film department at the University of Kent. This conference is our first major event to communicate this research with an external audience, and begin a wider conservation about this topic. As Tamar noted at the end of the conference, these thoughts do not constitute concluding remarks so much as indicate the beginnings of new avenues of research and the inspiration for future events. Gothic Feminism is not a one-off event but rather an ongoing project we will continue to explore here on the blog and in the future conferences we are now planning. We hope the delegates who were present last week, and other Gothic scholars, will be able to join us again for events which explore the representation of the Gothic heroine in cinema.
Watch this (Gothic) space…
Text by: Frances Kamm
Gothic Feminism: The Representation of the Gothic Heroine in Cinema
26-27th May 2016
Keynes College, University of Kent
Thursday 26th May
09:00 – 09:30 Registration (Keynes Atrium, Keynes College)
09:30 – 11:00 Keynote Speech – Catherine Spooner (Lancaster University): ‘Women in White: (Un)dressing the Gothic Heroine’ (Keynes Lecture Theatre 2, Keynes College)
11:00 – 11:30 Tea & coffee break (Keynes Atrium)
11:30 – 13:00 Papers 1: Return to Manderley (KLT2)
‘Against Fate and Paranoia: The Risk Assessor Heroine in The Second Woman (1950)’ – Guy Barefoot (University of Leicester)
‘Rebecca and The Haunting: Comparisons of a Gothic Protagonist’ – Johanna Wagner (Høgskolen i Østfold)
‘Impossible Spaces: Gothic Special Effects and Female Subjectivity’ – Christina Petersen (Eckerd College)
13:00 – 14:00 Lunch (Keynes Atrium)
14:00 – 15:30 Papers 2: Unexpected Locations (KLT2)
‘New Films in Gothic Mode: Pale Imitations or Crimson Peaks of Achievement?’ – Tamar Jeffers McDonald (University of Kent)
‘Bluebeard in the Cities: Investigative Gothic Heroines in Two Early 21st Century Films’ – Lawrence Jackson (University of Kent)
‘East German Gothic’ – Dana Weber (Florida State University/ Freie Universität Berlin)
15:30 – 16:00 Tea & coffee break (Keynes Atrium)
16:00 – 17:30 Videographic Work (TBC) (KLT2)
17:30 – 18:30 Cake reception (Keynes Atrium)
Friday 27th May
9:30 – 11:00 Papers 3: Small Screens (KLT2)
‘There’s a secret behind the door? And that secret is me? The Gothic Reimagining of Agatha Christie’s And There Were None’ – Katerina Flint-Nicol (University of Kent)
‘Laughing at Periods: Gothic Parody in Julia Davis’ Hunderby – Sarah McClellan (Independent Researcher)
‘Bluebeard’s Women Fight Back’ – Gisèle M. Baxter (University of British Columbia)
11:00 – 11:30 Tea & coffee break (Keynes Atrium)
11:30 – 13:00 Papers 4: Mothers (KLT2)
‘The Science-Fiction of Feminism: Ellen Ripley as a Gothic Heroine’ – Frances A. Kamm (University of Kent)
‘The Babadook, Maternal Gothic and the ‘woman’s horror film’’ – Paula Quigley (Trinity College Dublin)
‘Good Evening, Good Night: Goodnight Mommy and the Gothic Woman’ – Lies Lanckman (University of Kent)
13:00 – 14:00 Lunch (Keynes Atrium)
14:00 – 15:30 Papers 5: Beyond Hollywood (KLT2)
‘‘Dammit’ Janet!!!! Celebrating Female Sexuality in The Rocky Horror Picture Show Live Experience’ – Sarah Cleary (Trinity College Dublin)
‘The Gothic Heroine Out West: A Town Called Bastard (1971)’ – Lee Broughton (University of Leeds)
‘Imperilled Chavs and Hoodie Heroines: (Under)Class, Gender and the Gothic’ – Hannah Priest (Manchester Metropolitan University/Swansea University)
15:30 – 16:00 Tea & coffee break (Keynes Atrium)
16:00 – 16:30 Final remarks (KLT2)
The Representation of the Gothic Heroine in Cinema
University of Kent
Thursday 26th – Friday 27th May 2016
Keynote Speaker: Dr Catherine Spooner (Lancaster University)
CALL FOR PAPERS
Since its literary beginnings, the Gothic has featured distinctive female characters who engage with, and are often central to, the uncanny narratives characteristic of the genre. The eponymous ‘Gothic heroine’ conjures up images of the imperilled young and inexperienced woman, cautiously exploring the old dark house or castle where she is physically confined by force – imprisoned by the tale’s tyrant – or metaphorically trapped by societal expectations of marriage and domesticity. The Gothic heroine is habitually motivated by an investigative spirit and usually explores her surroundings in a quest to uncover a sinister secret which shall, for example, reveal her love interest’s past or provide explanation for her supposedly supernatural encounters.
The importance of the Gothic’s women protagonists is not limited to these narrative functions but extends to considerations of the genre itself; the Gothic can be defined by its portrayal of the heroine. Ellen Moers’ work on female literary traditions is a key text in this respect, identifying the ‘Female Gothic’ as a distinctive mode within the genre. The ‘Female Gothic’ highlights the prevalence of female writers exploring the Gothic mode and the implied woman reader engaging with the heroine’s exploits. Moers writes that ‘Female Gothic’ texts – such as those by Ann Radcliffe – convey a specific form of ‘heroinism’ which evokes the idea of a ‘literary feminism’.
Moers’ work demonstrates how the Gothic and the Gothic heroine intersect with feminist criticism because, as Helen Hanson notes, ‘the female gothic bears a political charge’ (Hanson, 2007, 63). This ‘political charge’ is equally applicable to the Gothic film and its representation of the heroine. In cinema, the Gothic enjoyed particular attention with the 1940s cycle of melodrama and noir films which emphasised the Gothic traits of the old dark house, mystery and domestic threat, with the Gothic heroine’s exploits central throughout. Films such as Rebecca (1940), Gaslight (1940/1944) and Secret Beyond the Door (1947) are exemplary of this trend. Several writers have explored the political and feminist ramifications of these films which have been seen as Gothic or, as Mary Ann Doane writes, ‘paranoid woman’s films’ (Doane, 1987). The reception and interpretation of these films is inextricably linked to societal contexts in which these films were made, as Diane Waldman notes how the war and immediate post-war period offer distinct visions – and varying degrees of validation – of the heroine’s feminine perspective.
This conference seeks to re-engage with these theories and reflect specifically upon the depiction of the Gothic heroine in film. Since the release of Rebecca over 75 years ago, has our evaluation of the Gothic heroine necessarily changed? How does the Gothic heroine relate to its literary predecessors? Can one speak of a cinematic Gothic heroine, distinct and separate from the original Gothic literature? Victoria Nelson notes that, in film history, ‘[in] a relatively short span of time, the perennial swooning damsel in distress had turned into a millennial female jock’ (Nelson, 2013, 136). How have the Gothic heroines of the screen evolved and is it possible to trace this specific lineage in contemporary representations? Whether the Gothic heroine be a ‘damsel’ or a ‘jock’, this inevitably raises the question of interpretation: how should the Gothic heroine be evaluated and can such a representation be thought of as ‘feminist’?
This conference shall engage with these questions of representation, interpretation and feminist enquiry in relation to the Gothic heroine throughout film history including present day incarnations, with films such as Crimson Peak (2015) directly re-engaging with the Gothic genre. This event seeks to wrestle with the difficulties posed by the Gothic as a mode which emphasises terror, the uncanny and suspense, alongside representations of women protagonists who given agency as investigators motivating narrative development but are subjected to horror for the story’s pleasure. These difficulties are not new to the Gothic genre. As Fred Botting notes: ‘Women’s gothic, it seems, straddles contradiction and challenge, persecution and pleasure’ (Botting, 2008, 153). Similarly, David Punter and Glennis Byron write that ‘[whether] female Gothic should be seen as radical or conservative has been an issue of particular concern’ (Punter and Bryon, 2004, 280). This conference shall illuminate the concerns, contradictions and challenges posed by the Gothic heroine on-screen through reference to specific case studies which re-engage with older examples of the Gothic and/or explore contemporary films, reflecting upon the renewed academic and commercial interest in the genre of recent years.
Topics can include but are not limited to:
– How interpretations of the Gothic heroine relates to large feminist criticisms. Can Gothic film be said to be ‘progressive’? Is the Gothic heroine always defined in relation to a patriarchy?
– In light of Moers’ work, can one speak of ‘heroinism’ and a ‘cinematic feminism’ to Gothic film?
– Historical explorations of the Gothic heroine in cinema. How has representations of the heroine changed and how does this relate to larger social and political contextual concerns?
– Contemporary incarnations of the Gothic heroine.
– Comparisons between the cinematic Gothic heroine and the genre’s literary beginnings.
– On-screen adaptations of Gothic literary texts.
– How does the Gothic heroine compare to other distinctive representations of female protagonists in genres such as melodrama and horror? Is the Gothic heroine a distinct and separate entity apart from other genres, or is she inextricably linked to them?
– Can one speak of a separate Gothic heroine tradition in cinema?
– The reception of Gothic film and Gothic heroine audiences.
– The relationship between the heroine and space, particularly domestic spaces such as the house. How does architecture relate to the representation of the Gothic heroine?
– The significance of costume and fashion to the Gothic heroine’s identity.
– Comparisons between the Gothic heroine and other protagonists, such as the archetypal ‘other woman’ or male lead. How, for example, is the concept of ‘Gothic feminism’ affected by the genre’s representation of masculinity/masculinities?
– The Gothic heroine as virgin or mother figure.
Frances Kamm and Tamar Jeffers McDonald, University of Kent.
Botting, Fred. (2008). Gothic Romanced: Consumption, Gender and Technology in Contemporary Fictions. Oxford: Routledge.
Doane, Mary Ann. (1987). The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Hanson, Helen. (2007). Hollywood Heroines: Women in Film Noir and the Female Gothic Film. London and New York: I. B. Tauris.
Moers, Ellen. (1976). Literary Women. New York: Doubleday and Co.
Nelson, Victoria. (2013). ‘Daughters of Darkness’. In: Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film. London: BFI.
Punter, David. and Byron, Glennis. (2004). The Gothic. Oxford: Blackwell.
Waldman, Diane. (1983). ‘”At last I can tell it to someone!” Feminine point of view and Subjectivity in the Gothic Romance Film of the 1940s’, Cinema Journal 23: 29-40.