Published: May 1, 2009 By

[1] In her groundbreaking essay “When the Woman Looks,” Linda Williams argues that “Brian De Palma’s film Dressed to Kill extends Psycho‘s premise by holding the woman [Kate Miller, played by Angie Dickinson] responsible for the horror that destroys her” (94). De Palma extends much more than Psycho’s premise in this film, just as all of his other Hitchcock homages extend much more than the premises of the various Hitchcock films with which they engage. Without dismissing the work done by Williams, Shelley Stamp Lindsey, and myriad commentators, feminist and otherwise, on the misogynistic propensities of De Palma’s oeuvre, I would like to propose a different angle from which to inspect it, one that would allow us to see it organically as an ongoing critical project: a depiction of male friendship that functions, through studies of betrayal, duplicity, vengeance, greed, and cruelty, as a critique of the organization of the homosocial sphere within capitalist society. Homosocialized male power is the horror that destroys Kate Miller, other heroines, and the hapless male protagonists of many De Palma films. More precisely, De Palma films interrogate thenecessity of forming bonds within the homosocial sphere, seeing that necessity as an inevitable burden that must be carried by the American male. The male subject position, in De Palma films, is as impossible to occupy successfully as the female one.

[2] This new critical perspective on the director brings into sharper focus the anti-patriarchal sensibility in his work. I argue that De Palma exudes an ambivalence about his female characters rather than a misogynistic hatred; indeed, one could argue that De Palma has a far greater and more sustained interest in representing women than many of his fellow New Hollywood peers—Spielberg, Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola, Friedkin, et al—have ever exhibited. Before De Palma’s ambivalence towards his female characters can be measured, we must come to a clearer understanding of his overarching interest in male relations. In order to demonstrate the validity of this approach, in this essay I examine three early De Palma films—Greetings(1968),Hi, Mom! (1970), and Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972)—in light of the interest in the dynamics of the homosocial that permeates De Palma’s body of work. Given that this essay treats De Palma’s films from a queer theory perspective, it will helpful first to elucidate this theoretical approach.

Triangulating Desire

[3] René Girard and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick privilege the triangle as the graphic schema for erotic competition between men—two men warring over the same woman. Femininity is the economy that allows the men to exchange their desires in whatever forms those desires may take (Girard 1-52, Sedgwick 1-27). In relation to the theme of male friendship and male relations, the theme of men’s relationship to women—to Woman—emerges as a prominent one in these early films. In them, the figure of Woman functions iconically, as the site of exchange between men, to use Girard’s and Sedgwick’s formulas of triangulated desire, but also as an impossibly aloof, elusive Ideal around which men revolve and which they must also overmaster and conquer. Though his often essentialist gendered schemas may not endear him to many of his critics, De Palma’s treatment of women is inextricably connected to his general critique of the compulsory performance of masculinity and manhood in American life.

[4] An important distinction must be made between De Palma’s treatment of women in these early films and in the later, more stylistically cohesive period (his “Red Period”) that begins with Sisters(1973), which signals both the advent of an explicitly intertextual relationship with the looming body of work in the Hitchcockian suspense genre and the persistent, even obsessive interest in the construction of the heroine, and concludes with Body Double (1984). Though these three early films form the foundation for the critique of male relations in De Palma’s oeuvre, they should be viewed as initial stages in the evolution of this theme and not as themselves iconic of De Palma’s treatment of either male relations or women in his films. The early films depict male friendship in a more open-ended fashion than the later films (which treat the theme with a nihilistic hopelessness) and conversely depict women in a more opaque, less emotionally cathected manner.

[5] In addition to providing crucial insights into De Palma’s representation of women and male relations, these early films evince an understanding of the homosocial sphere’s reliance upon and abjection of homosexuality. Greetings features a sequence in which the heterosexual-homosocial creates a homosexual out of the body of one of its own. These films anticipate queer theorist Judith Butler’s findings in her early works Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993) that gender is a performance, and that heterosexuality depends upon an abjected homosexuality to give it coherence and authority. To wax Butlerian, De Palma’s early films figure homosexuality as the excluded domain of normativity, precisely what heterosexuality employs to define itself by defining itself against. By insisting on heterosexual manhood’s thoroughly intimate familiarity with homosexual subculture, they collapse the discrete distinctions between heterosexual normativity and homosexual abjection; they expose normative heterosexual manhood as an impossible, and impossibly maintained, ideal.

[6] As Butler has influentially demonstrated, the body is both a text awaiting inscription from hegemonic power and one always already inscribed. As Butler writes, “Heterosexuality is always in the process of imitating and approximating its own phantasmatic idealization of itself—and failing” (Butler, “Imitation,” 21). Social construction—the “constitutive constraint”—not only produces the “domain of intelligible bodies” but also “unthinkable, abject, unlivable bodies.”

The latter domain of [those abjected bodies] is not the opposite of the former, for oppositions are, after all, part of intelligibility; the latter is the excluded and illegible domain that haunts the former domain as the spectre of its own impossibility, the very limit to intelligibility, its constitutive outside. (Butler, Bodies, xi.)

“Abject” bodies only serve to haunt the normative domain of intelligible bodies.

[7] If biological sex confers gendered identity, for Butler, even the term “sex”—as the sign of gender—is normative: regulatory and privileged. The source of the regulation is heterosexual hegemony. “Sex” is a performative ideal, and actively monitored by regulatory power. “Performativity must be understood not as a singular or deliberate ‘act’,” though, “but as the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects it names” (Butler, Bodies, 2). The “heterosexual imperative” is such that it requires that a subject being formed identify with “the normative phantasm of ‘sex,’ and thisidentification takes place through a repudiation which produces a domain of abjection,” a repudiation which is essential for the subject’s emergence as a subject. Another constructive trope, “gender,” which Butler distinguishes from “sex,” operates “[as] the social construction of sex…[which is] absorbed by gender, [becoming] something like a fiction [that is]…installed at a prelinguistic site to which there is no direct access” (Butler, Bodies, 5).The “heterosexual imperative” is synonymous with “compulsory heterosexuality.” “Construction is neither a subject nor its act, but a process of reiteration by which both ‘subjects’ and ‘acts’ come to appear at all,” for there “is no power that acts, but only a reiterated acting that is power in its persistence and instability” (Butler, Bodies, 9).

[8] What these early De Palma films allow us to see is that white male heterosexuality no less than any other form of identity needs to be rigorously, determinedly, infinitely reenacted to be maintained with any coherence at all. The dazzling series of male masquerades inGreetings and Hi, Mom!—the New Hollywood equivalent of Roger O. Thornhill’s costume changes in North by Northwest (1959)—transgressively threaten to expose the precariousness of male identity they send up. As Greetings will amply demonstrate, homosexual identity and the fear of it haunts the presumably heterosexual national male identity that is itself under siege, as evinced by the palpable anxieties that flow from the stammering President down to the panicked draft-dodgers. These films suggest that the maintenance of gendered identity itself is a form of unlivable abjection.

[9] These early films (among others) deploy homosexuality, an important corollary to the depiction of male friendship and iconic womanhood, both as a field of knowledge that informs and a realm of anxiety that saturates the heterosexual-homosocial sphere. As Sedgwick writes in Between Men:

In any male-dominated society, there is a special relationship between male homosocial (includinghomosexual) desire and the structures for maintaining and transmitting patriarchal power: a relationship founded on an inherent and potentially active structural congruence. (25)

What is of chief value in De Palma’s work is that he exposes the homosocial’s incoherence and untenable aims—its ineluctable tendency towards dissolution, a tendency that assimilates all in its path—its inability to solidify. De Palma’s insistent tendency to investigate male friendship, however sullied by betrayal, has queer potentialities of political value. As Parker Tyler wrote, “while filmdom must have its sentimental charades, must constantly assert its all-too-public discretion, the innocence of really chummy, enduring, and drama-fraught relations between men has to register as a speculative factor, always subject to … analysis” (71-72). The chief object of De Palma’s persistent speculation has been the underpinnings of the homosocial sphere itself, presented as hardly innocent, even at its chummiest. Even though these early films bear little seeming relation to the later ones, especially the grandiloquent thrillers, they reveal, upon close analysis, an organic relation in theme and motif to each other and to other films in De Palma’s oeuvre—an oeuvre which, I argue, is cohesively bound by an interest in the dynamics of relations between men, which informs the essentialist treatments of women and ongoing interest in queer identity. In these three early films, De Palma most revealingly provides us with the political concerns that will undergird his oeuvre, as well as invaluable insights into the tensions within the homosocialized white manhood of their era.

[10] Making Hitchcock’s preoccupation with voyeurism central to his own cinema, De Palma ties voyeuristic looking to male-male relations. As Kenneth MacKinnon writes, these early films “are the most overt statement” in De Palma’s canon “of the intimacy between personal and social voyeurism. When ordinary individuals are not appearing on television they can make their own movies, do their own prying, or feature themselves as spectacle” (186-7). MacKinnon also reminds us of the film De Palma made before Greetings,Dionysus in 69, based on Euripides’s play The Bacchae, which foregrounds the hazards of the male gaze, climaxing in the beheading of a male voyeur. (Refusing to believe in Dionysus, Pentheus spies on the wine-god’s group of nocturnal female worshippers, the Maenads, who rend apart animals’ flesh in the nighttime forest. One of these Maenads is Pentheus’s mother,. When the Maenads discover Pentheus voyeuristically gazing upon them, they rip off his head; his mother, before she regains her daytime senses, carries his head on a stick.)Dionysus in 69 explicates another theme that will permeate the early comedies, the homoeroticism that threatens to engulf the presumably heterosexual male voyeur: in one striking scene, Dionysius ravishes Pentheus, after having kissed him fully on the mouth. In his early comedies, De Palma deepens themes of male voyeurism with an awareness of their queer potentiality.

Male Panic: Greetings

[11] The hectic Greetings, which De Palma edited and also co-wrote, with Charles Hirsch, opens with a meta-textual, frame-within-the-frame image of the United States President of the moment, Lyndon Baines Johnson, speaking to us from within a TV set encased by the frame of the film. LBJ calls upon the men of America to assist with the current military crisis and its attendant problems: “I hope you men are determined to help us meet these problems … [and] give justice to the people of this nation and the world.” As if defensively anticipating rebuttals, LBJ says, “I’m not saying you never had it so good—but thatis a fact, isn’t it?” As Dana Nelson puts it, the discord and disruption inherent in any democratic model are “soothingly covered over by national self-sameness and unity, and embodied by the national executive. This a virtual (abstracted, imagined) fraternity, where the discomfiting actuality of fraternal disagreement disappears in the singular body of the President” (34). But in De Palma’s Greetings, the President’s body—literally shown decapitated, divorced from the floating, sad, hectoring head we see on the TV screen, symbolically lifeless—signifies the decohesion of American fraternity. Nevertheless, the men of America are addressed as if they were a cohesive group, an imagined community (to use Benedict Anderson’s phrase to describe the way citizens of a nation fantasize about and relate to each other) of men. Moreover, the film seems to suggest the national leader’s own embattled masculinity. LBJ “was more openly insecure about his masculinity than John Kennedy and often made explicit the connection between these doubts and his decisions of state” (Fasteau 394). Greetings suggests that trickle-down gender anxiety informs the surveillance and enforcement of individual performances of national manhood. As Marc Fasteau has demonstrated, the framers of the Vietnam War era rigorously categorized any opposition to the war as “unmasculine”; draft-dodgers were characterized as androgynous with the same derision that met similar characterizations of counterculture hippies; anyone attempting to elude service in the War invited the calumniation and deeper hazards of charges of effeminacy and sexual deviance. It is in such an atmosphere that De Palma’s early films negotiate masculine anxieties.

[12] Greetings‘ protagonists, three male friends—Paul Shaw (Jonathan Warden), Jon Rubin (Robert De Niro), and Lloyd Clay (Gerrit Graham)—in Vietnam-era New York City, do not appear to “have it so good.” Ironically undercutting LBJ’s rhetoric, we abruptly cut to a hand-held view of Paul walking into an African-American bar. “Which one of you niggers is man enough to take me on?” hollers Paul inside. In the next scene, set inside a thrift shop-clothing store, Paul explains what happened (“I got stomped by some spades”) and his motives to Jon and Lloyd. “I got to get out of it,” he says: Paul has attempted to get beaten up in order to fail his pre-induction physical and thereby avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War.

[13] Despite its freewheeling, Godardian looseness and spontaneity, the film is fraught with wartime anxiety. The film hinges its concerns on the pressures to sustain and achieve national manhood, pressures which inspire racism and death-wishes; the mingled racism, desperation, and transgressive humor in Paul’s challenge to the blacks in the bar encapsulate the film’s obsession with male performance and its attendant anxieties. The scene in the thrift shop, the second in the film, is perhaps the most important one in terms of the film’s ribald and anxious negotiation with the pressures of American manhood.

[14] As a transaction occurs between the proprietor and a customer, both Jon and Lloyd mastermind a plot to get Paul “out of it”: they devise a foolproof plan for him to fail his pre-induction physical. “We’ll do the same thing for you that I did,” says Lloyd—and the friends proceed to transform Paul into “a fag” to get him out of military service, in a sequence that plays like a cross between the Pygmalion myth and The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935). They take off Paul’s jacket, roughly tuck his shirt corners in (“Really get them in there”), and hoist up his pants to an absurd height. “I ain’t no fag, man,” protests Paul. “We’re makingyou a fag, man,” say his friends. “Now you got to get some black lace bikini panties, ” says Lloyd. “Fags, you see,” says Lloyd, “fags are really blatant.” After instructing Paul to stuff these undergarments with a deceiving sock, Lloyd instructs him to wear a fishnet shirt and to shave his entire body: “Shave your chest, under your arms, your whole body”—and, in a proto-product placement moment, says—”better use Nair.” Paul complains about all of this fuss and its effects: “It’s rankling me, man.” Underscoring this scene is the exchange between the proprietor and his customer, coded, through his flashy garb, as homosexual. Though the camera remains stationary throughout, De Palma flips and intermixes two different versions of the scene. In the alternate version, the customer becomes the proprietor, and the queeny customer is equally queeny in his new role as the proprietor, while the proprietor-as-customer remains more masculinely “rough.” The real “fag” of this scene reads as one no matter which role he plays.

[15] I do not want to make the potentially naïve reading that De Palma is a Genet-like transgressor who privileges the gay outcast as social provocateur and glorious rebel. It is difficult to judge how much sympathy, beyond his ironic function, the shifting gay man is allowed in this ambivalent scene. What I want to argue for is the queer potentiality of De Palma’s overall critique of heterosexual male culture. De Palma suggests that heteromasculine men like the homosocialized Jon, Paul, and Lloyd possess an uncanny familiarity with the social and aesthetic capacities of “fagdom”; their ransacking of queer attributes, signs, and emblems signals their own anxious positions as endangered straight men—at odds with straight male culture as a whole—much more powerfully than it signals the homophobia present in the film’s culture, to say nothing of our own.. There is very little that Jon and Lloyd can do for Paul other than camouflage him; they are themselves victims of the crushing and overarching male system presided over by LBJ, himselfshown to be worried and anxious about his appeal to fellow “men,” as his tergiversations during his broadcast suggests. The general male panic in the air forces the male community to feed off of itself.

[16] The physical intimacy of the men in this scene represents the paralytic bind of average men in a culture of compulsory masculinity that both encourages and agitates against same-sex intimacy and always closes off any erotic potentialities of that intimacy. Only through the construction of an extruded “fagginess” can these men exhibit fidelity and concern. The rough tenderness with which the men turn Paul into a “fag” is itself sexually suspect, emblematizing what Sedgwick describes as the “radically disrupted continuum, in our society, between sexual and nonsexual male bonds” (Sedgwick 23). Creating a “fag” out of Paul allows a physical intimacy amongst the men that in other contexts would be suspect; it is only their complementary abuse towards the abjectified identity of the “fag” that inoculates them against attendant social contagion. The following scene’s setting—a zoo where the three men stand before group of caged bears—makes graphically explicit the homosocial sphere’s simultaneous abhorrence of and intimacy with queer sexuality. The juxtaposition of caged animals and the three anxious young men is telling and pointed. Within the larger backdrop of the zoo and zoological classifications, their interactions in this scene, in which they further appropriate the codes of queer identity, represent their fears of their own endangerment even as they continue to calumniate the “fag.” Their simultaneous efforts to mine “fag” identity of its potential benefits and denounce it through ridicule serve as consolatory gestures, attempts to alleviate their own anxieties over participating in a nationalistic program of compulsory masculinity.

[17] Hips swaying widely, wrists limply waving, Lloyd saunters up to Paul and Jon, who improvisationally stand-in for the staunch military personnel who will preside over Paul’s actual induction. When asked his name, Lloyd, modeling the “fag”-Paul that the “real” Paul must emulate, responds, “Paul Gerald Shaw; but you can call me ‘Geranium,’ because the boys say I smell like a flower!” The levels of play and gendered performance here are remarkable. Lloyd, ostensibly straight (though Graham’s performance has a floridity that is pansexual), plays a gay man before his straight friends, who are themselves playing specific types ofother straight men, homophobic militia types. Playing the “fag” functions as a strategy for certain straight men to elude the hegemonic rule of the heterosexual-homosocial sphere. The abject homosexual identity becomes a defiant oppositional identity for straight men against other, “straighter,” men.

[18] As Lloyd sashays up to the “men,” he provides asides to complement his performance (an imitation meant to be imitated). “Just walk right up to him … and seduce him with your eyeballs,” he says, as these organs flutter wildly: being a “fag” involves a training of the viscera. “Get a load of this!” heartily contributes De Niro’s Jon, mock-butch as the gruff commando he’s portraying. What makes this scene poignant rather than offensive, or, at least, poignant while offensive, is the underlayer of desperation involved in the entire performance. Homosexual identity is ablated from the larger heterosexual male community, but the heterosexual men doing this are themselves ablated from the larger heterosexual male community which they both satirize and serve. Ultimately, their own position within the homosocial sphere bears eerie similarities to that of the homosexual. Paul delivers a line that intensifies these fears: “I can’t act like a fag, man. And they’re gonna put me on the front lines with the other fags.” They are all in this together.

[19] Greetings registers the blurring of sexual lines in 60s counterculture, in which presumably heterosexual young men were labeled “fags” and “queers” because of their hippie identity. Considering as well the almost coterminous emergence of the gay liberation movement figured by Stonewall—the landmark riot took place on June 27, 1969, in the same New York City where Greetingsis set—and the film, the grafting of gay panic onto the performance anxieties of these young draft-dodgers further suggest a melting of boundaries between sexual and gendered identities. Greetingsanthropologically surveys the scene of males performing masculinity in the late 1960s, a time in which several of the major figures in popular culture, most visibly Andy Warhol but many others as well, were provocatively flaunting their genderbending transgressions. It locates the weirdly touching middle ground between abject and hegemonic identities, one represented by the anxious imitation by these vagabond goofs of a gay persona through which they hope to elude their probable deaths on the “front lines.”

[20] The political accomplishment of Greetings is that it allows for an alienated resistance to the heterosexual-homosocial from those within it. Further helping Paul to evade the draft, Paul’s friends next urge him to play an asocial psycho. They tell him what to say in order to traumatize government psychiatrists: “Be real militant!” De Niro’s Jon models the psycho-male Paul should portray: “[I want to kill] niggers, spicks, and jews …. Ready to kill me a bunch of little commies.” De Niro’s proto-Travis Bickle impersonation, a model for Paul to emulate, deepens in a subsequent, similar scene: “[I want to kill] Mexicans, niggers, homos, all the undesirable elements …. Let my rifle veer to the left, then to the right, to pick off cancerous elements.” These draft-dodgers locate a violently racist, even psychopathic, outlook within the persona of the American male. The terms of the present war—ethnic cleansing, for starters—characteristics implicitly lauded by LBJ in his speech, are the defining features of this version of an American psycho the three friends dream up to outwit the nation’s demands. This constructed psycho-figure ends up satirizing the rapacious brutality of the surrounding war simply by being comprised of the very same qualities presumably needed to engage in it. Which is to say, the psycho the De Niro character performs is merely a slightly more hyped-up version of the American male LBJ calls to arms and duty. The three friends merely feed back to the nation the bitter meal of masculinity it has served to them. It should be emphasized, however, that Greetings depicts a potential for solidarity between men. Though De Palma will make it his ongoing thematic business to critique the compulsory nature of male friendship, at least at this point in his career, he believes in the powerful potential in male friendship to protect embattled men from the dangers inherent within the homosocial sphere.

Voyeuristic Brotherhood: Hi, Mom!

[21] Like a vision that gains clarity through successive lenses, the depiction of the homosocial and its attendant sexual anxieties achieves a sharper focus still in Hi, Mom! (1970). As they did inGreetings, De Palma and Charles Hirsch conceived the story and the screenplay; De Niro returns as Jon Rubin; Gerrit Graham also returns, albeit as “Gerrit Wood.” (Interestingly, there is neither the return ofGreetings’s Paul nor the actor who played him, Jonathan Warden.) The interest in scopophilia that marks Greetings—its riffs onBlow Up, its fascination with the perspectival grassy knoll vantage point of the JFK assassination, the Zapruder film—becomes an obsession in Hi, Mom!, which was also known as Confessions of a Peeping Jon, an alternate title that riffs on another De Palma obsession, Michael Powell’s famous 1960 film Peeping Tom, and, implicitly, on Hitchcock’s 1954 Rear Window. The beleaguered, anxious male viewers in Hi, Mom’s porno theater enact De Palma’s own agon with his corrupt cinematic fathers, whose incorporated visions he will obsessively turn into his own tormenting compulsions. If films such as Orson Welles’ 1948The Lady from Shanghai, with its famous shootout in a hall of mirrors climax, and those by Powell and Hitchcock seek to critique the film spectator’s scopophilic sadism, the ravenous desire to look and to control the spectatorial field and the actors/characters within it, and if De Palma’s cinema will become a sustained prolonging of the anxieties that undergird his predecessors’ work, what De Palma stages in Hi, Mom! is an anticipatory allegory of his own deepening cinematic project.

[22] Because of the sadomasochistic quality of these films’ depiction of looking relations, Freud’s treatment of voyeurism is particularly illuminating. In his conflation of scopophilia and exhibitionism, linked “instincts” that exist somewhat “independently” from erotogenic sexual activity, with cruelty, Freud appears to suggest that these drives hinge on pitilessly attempting to exert dominance over the entire exhibitionistic spectacle. But there’s a real pathos within the pitilessness. Onanistic children with an interest in the genitals of others most often develop into “voyeurs, eager spectators of the processes of micturition and defecation,” activities likeliest to satisfy eyes hungering for a glimpse of hidden genitals. After repression sets in, this desire to see others’ genitals becomes a “tormenting compulsion” (58-9). Through a Freudian lens, Jon’s peep-art in Hi, Mom! appears to be an attempt to exert power, an illusory sense of dominance, in a culture in which he has none, a powerlessness specifically represented in the film through his visit to the underworld of a pornographic theater, led by a highly dubious Virgil figure. Jon’s peeping on women emerges as a defense against his own subjugation before the spectacle of the gaze, his abjection as spectator-object.

[23] In Hi, Mom!, De Niro’s Jon returns to New York City from Vietnam. Rather like a picaresque hero, he becomes entangled in unforeseeably odd adventures: strange political intrigues that involve terrorism and an allegiance with a Black Power theater-of-cruelty troupe (the “Be Black, Baby!” sequence provides some of the most interesting and satirical work on race-relations in American film of this era. The black actors who torment the white viewers, who then appreciatively discuss the relevance of their experiences with reporters, appear to enact vengeance for Paul’s exploitation of blacks in Greetings.). An obvious stand-in for the director, Jon wants to make “peep-art” films. He goes to the office of sleazemeister extraordinaire Joe Banner (the peerlessly coarse and dislikable Allen Garfield), head of Banner Films, a pornographic movie company that confirms another of the film’s alternate titles, Blue Manhattan. When Jon—who, as De Niro plays him, is a mixture of jitteriness and confidence—visits Banner’s office, the cantankerous Banner yells at him for disrupting his review of a typical Banner offering: “Look what you’re disturbing here. Is that gorgeous? You see that cleavage? You don’t get that in a Fellini film! You get that in a Banner film!” Garfield, who also appears in Greetings, embodies the corrupt depiction of male friendship in these three early films, which may almost be seen as a Garfield triptych: a three-paneled installation of male degradation. Banner’s intertextual agon with Fellini presages that De Palma will have with Hitchcock among other directors.

[24] The next scene takes place in a porno theater where a non-Banner film—the competition—is being shown. This scene, in a satirical way, deepens Greetings‘ treatment of the invasion of the embattled homosocial sphere by the threat of the homosexual. Shots alternate of the pornographic film on the screen and the two men, Jon and Banner, sitting watching the film. Banner’s weirdly utopian class description of the clientele—”This is your public … these guys come from every walk of life: middle-class, rich, poor”—is counterbalanced by the positioning of an elderly, blank-faced patron in the row before Jon and Banner. Jon notices a man going into the bathroom, and prominently turns around to see what the man is doing. Like a grubby Virgil in this flickering inferno, Banner explains, rather thoroughly, the codes of this realm to the smugly cheerful Jon, who is shown to be avidly invested in the activities of the homosexual:

Don’t pay any attention …. Things go on in there [inside the bathroom] …. I shouldn’t even tell you what goes on in there …. You come into one of these theaters, you do not go into the bathroom. You got that straight? That’s one of the laws.

What fascinates, for starters, about Banner’s speech is that it recognizes the role of the homosexual—in fact, it solidifies it—within the heterosexual-homosocial. Yet there is an attendant and ultimately fetishized level of “secrecy” surrounding this role, what Sedgwick has described as the open secret of homosexuality: “I shouldn’t even tell you what goes on in there.” The movie makes quite a show of the show Jon makes in curiously fixating on the activities of the homosexual in the straight porno theater. Juxtaposed against Jon and Banner’s speech is the film-within-the-film, the porno. We keep cutting back to the representation of the woman in the porno being sexually satiated; her and her male partner’s exaggerated heavy breathing diegetically engulfs the scene. There is a pointed contrast made between the colossal energies of porno-heterosexuality and the puny antics of the homosocial-homosexual.

[25] There is a scuffle in the bathroom and the “pervert” is thrown out. Again, Banner offers commentary: “Don’t pay any attention… Pervert—leave him alone. Who knows where he’s been?” Banner gets back to the pressing business at hand—pointing out the inadequacies of this particular non-Banner Films work. He points out the lack of satisfaction visibly conveyed by the porno actor’s expressions: “She looks inhibited, right? …. She wants to screw the man of her life. So who do they put her in there with? Some weirdo with gold hair!” As Banner says this, we cut back to the porno—and the “weirdo” with gold hair, like some ersatz Ganymede, stares back at us, as if to say, “Hey, I heard that!” This moment crucially establishes the non-incidental linkage De Palma makes between the antic events of the porno and the antic events within the porno theater. The epic scene of heterosexual relations in the porno dwarfs the relatively petty scene of male-male relations. Yet the joke is that the man in the porno is also less than “manly”—like the pervert skulking around in the theater, the golden-haired weirdo is a freak being singled out for his weakness, as lacking in machismo as the skulking pervert in the bathroom.

[26] When we return to the scene of the two “men” speaking, the pervert is sitting next to Jon, and Banner is pontificating about the body. “I believe that people should walk around with sense of beauty about the body.” He presents an interesting case: his daughter is a free spirit comfortable with her nudity but his six year old son “walks around with a towel around him all the time.” Now the pervert begins massaging Jon’s thigh. De Niro nervously laughs. Nonchalantly, Banner says, “That’s alright, he means well!”: a great line, because this pervert “means” all over the place. As the pervert gropes Jon, Jon and Banner exchange glances. Their exchanges seem theatrically to acknowledge their roles in the performance of their manhood. We cut back to the porno. The woman in it bumps her head against a poster on the wall behind her—a poster of a woman. Like the men, she, too, bumps against a spectacular representation of the essentialist identity she must embody by enacting.

[27] Now Garfield and De Niro have switched places (the pervert remaining in place). The pervert, mechanically, rotely, now begins to massage Banner’s thigh. Banner pontificates on this point: “This man [the pervert] is obviously somebody who needs a movie. But not this movie. If it were this movie, he wouldn’t be doing this to me—he wouldn’t be putting his hands on my balls.” In Hitchcock’s great 1958Vertigo, there is a deliberate shot of Judy’s feet being inertly dragged over the stairs as Scotty hoists her up to their fateful climactic visit to the church bell tower. In this scene, Hitchcock, as Donald Spoto points out, suggests that Judy willingly allows herself to be dragged to her death through this odd shot (331). Along these lines, it is impossible to read Allen Garfield’s performance and De Palma’s direction of it during the delivery of these lines as accidental. As Garfield says, “He wouldn’t be doing this to me,” he picks up the pervert’s hand, and visibly clenches it. “He wouldn’t be putting his hands on my balls”: with this line, Garfield takes the pervert’s hand and deliberately places it on his—Garfield’s—groin, pressing down as he does this.

[28] The effect of this key moment is to synthesize the complex, rough negotiations of spheres of sexualities enacted by this entire scene. The pervert becomes a limp, pliable representative of perversity, not the “the Spirit of Perverseness,” as Poe put it, but perversity’s abject form in a regime of simultaneous repression and compulsory sexual potency and performance. By physically directing the “perverse” aims of the pervert, Banner signals his own complicity in the fulfillment of these aims. It’s almost as if he were enabling or guiding the perversity of the pervert: showing him how it’s done. The starkly separate spheres of the homosexual and the homosocial merge, lose distinctiveness. As Jonathan Dollimore points out, “Freud described homosexuality as the most important perversion of all,” “as well as the most repellent in the popular mind,” while also being “so pervasive to human psychology” that Freud made it “central to psychoanalytic theory” (174). The pervert’s wan, vulnerable embodiment of perversity blurs into his social burden of also representing the ultimate male abject, the homosexual. Banner’s physical actions here signal the homosocial’s dependence on the presence of the homosexual, a point insistently made in these three early films, but this presence is merely a flimsy covering up of a deep, despairing absence, the impossibility of actually representing a queer subject position in this media. The pervert-homosexual we see here is a phantom of himself, an illusion of his own unrepresentable subaltern sexual desire, a living void of signification. Attempting to make his desire visible, the pervert largely exists to be derogated and directed by others. The uses and abuses of the pervert here belie Banner’s phantasy of the porno theater as a utopian zone in which perversity can be accessed by all manner of men. Rather than functioning in this utopian way, the pornographic theater is simply another social, socially regulated zone, where sexual hierarchies, the normal versus the perverse, still apply, hence Banner’s derogation of the pervert.

[29] For a director inextricably linked to misogyny, De Palma demonstrates a remarkable ambivalence towards pornography, surely the genre of filmmaking most commonly associated with misogyny. An interest in satirizing porn runs through De Palma’s work, most strikingly in the false film-within-the-film opening of 1981 Blow Out, which begins with footage from a porny cheapjack horror film, “Co-ed Frenzy,” and concludes with a ludicrously unconvincing woman’s scream. (The film will replace that inadequate scream with a wrenchingly authentic one.) Few directors have more resolutely explored the simultaneously joyful sensuality and nihilistic emptiness of the pornographic—not just literally, as in Hi, Mom!, but in terms of film texture and themes. If the 1976 Carrie’s early girls-in-the shower sequence (which follows the first scene, in which teen-misfit Carrie is brutalized by the other girls for her clumsiness during gym class) is a lyrical phantasy of unlimited access to feminine sexuality, Blow Outalready sees the pornographic film as a site of brutality and spiritual emptiness, whereas Body Double alternately views it as a zone for homosocial relations and betrayal and a fiendishly funny, berserk alternative reality that exists primarily for send-up and satirization; the latter films tellingly make the pornographic and horror movie industries indistinguishable. De Palma’s problematization of the pornographic—an especially striking feature of what so many consider to be a misogynistic filmography—continues to the present day. Some of the most piercing images in the flawed but extraordinary The Black Dahlia(2006), about one of the grisliest Hollywood murders, are those of the vulnerable, doomed Elizabeth Short (Mia Kershner) either being interviewed by a sleazy, invasive Banner-like movie producer (we only hear his voice; it’s provided by De Palma himself) or acting in a pornographic film. The juxtaposition between the intensely graphic sexuality of the pornographic images and Short’s suffering, emblematized by her huge, haunted eyes, is truly harrowing.

[30] Though Linda Williams exhibits a striking lack of interest in De Palma’s conflation of the horror and pornography genres, her work is quite relevant for De Palma’s cinema (which she alternately impugns and dismisses). If, as Williams argues in her well-known essay “Film Bodies,” that the “body genres” of pornography, horror, and melodrama function through “seemingly gratuitous excesses,” what is most notable about De Palma’s depiction of pornography is its lack of excess, its barrenness, its abjection (268). Laura Kipnis’ work can enrich our understanding of De Palma’s depiction of pornography. One of the most important insights of her Bound and Gagged is that the pornography that is made for male consumption enables a fantasy that women desire sex in the same way that men presumably do: impersonally. If we readHi, Mom! in light of Kipnis’ argument, we can theorize that Banner’s and Jon’s interactions with the homosexual reveal the sad/comic truth that the only people likely to pursue such conventionally physically unappealing men as Banner are other abjected men. The homosexual pervert here facilitates the fantasy-enactment of Banner’s “desire to be desired, which the pornographic film’s action pointedly does not. He substitutes for the fantasy woman of pornography, the genre’s promise of access to whom will almost never be fulfilled in reality. As such, the pervert bears the burden not only of homophobia but of a misogynistic rage fueled by sexual and emotional deprivation.

[31] Slavoj Žižek theorizes that, unlike the nonpornographic love scene in a “normal” film, which is predicated on the inability to “show” us everything, the pornographic one “shows us everything.” The effect of this abundance is “extremely vulgar and depressing,” for pornography “dispels the charm” of the love scene, leaving us “stuck with vulgar, groaning fornication.” Drawing on the essential antinomy—paradox, unresolvability—of the relationship between gaze and eye Lacan articulates in his Seminar XI—that “the eye viewing the object is on the side of the subject, while the gaze is on the side of the object”; in other words, the object I look at always already gazes back at me, from a point at which I cannot see it—Žižek theorizes that the problem of pornography is that it loses this antinomy.

This antinomy of gaze and view is lost in pornography—why? Because pornography is inherentlyperverse; its perverse character lies not in the obvious fact that it “goes all the way and shows us dirty details”; its perversity is, rather, to be conceived in a strictly formal way. In pornography, the spectator is forced a priori to occupy a perverse position. Instead of being on the side of the viewed object, the gaze falls into ourselves, the spectators, which is why the image we see on the screen contains no spot, no sublime-mysterious point from which it gazes at us. It is only we who gaze stupidly at the image that “reveals all.” Contrary to the commonplace according to which, in pornography, the other (the person on the screen) is degraded to an object of our voyeuristic pleasure, we must stress that it is the spectator himself who effectively occupies the position of the object. The real subjects are the actors on the screen trying to rouse us sexually, while we, the spectators, are reduced to a paralyzed object-gaze. (109-10)

Žižek’s theorization of pornography illuminates a crucial aspect of what De Palma presents to us here, the essentially paralytic, abject position of the male spectators. Just as the draft-dodgers of Greetingsrely upon the derogated, more abject figure of the “fag” to maintain a precarious sense of autonomy in the face of crushing national male might, the spectators of pornography in this film use the figure of the pervert to assuage their anxieties, their confrontation with their own revealed vulnerability as spectator-objects. De Palma reveals—in an inchoate manner that will manifest its full acuity in his later, more mature films—the anxieties that undergird the misogyny and homophobia inherent in the homosocial.

 Corporate Brotherhoods: Get to Know Your Rabbit

[32] Allen Garfield’s sleazy charms also figure in the depiction of the horror of the homosocial in De Palma’s next film, Get to Know Your Rabbit. Orson Welles has a small role in this film as a master magician, Mr. Delasandro, who teaches the hero, Donald Beeman (Tom Smothers), magic tricks. (The movie, in aesthetic terms, is notable only for allowing De Palma the opportunity to practice the overhead shots and the split-screen images that would come to mark his distinctive style.) Donald desperately eludes the attentions of his corporate boss, Mr. Turnbull (Jon Astin of the 1960s TV show “The Addams Family”), who insists that he must come back to life as a corporate drudge. Turnbull invades and infiltrates Donald’s life, even, at one point, kidnapping and coercing Donald’s elderly parents and conscripting them into his cause. Donald just wants to be allowed to become a tap-dancing magician. Like Greetings and Hi, Mom!Get to Know Your Rabbit (the titular rabbit is a prop Welles’s imperious magician wields; at one point, Welles disdainfully informs Smothers: “You’re holding your rabbit all wrong.”) figures the homosocial sphere as a binding realm the individual male longs to escape. Unlike those films, it depicts the homosocial sphere as corporate, linking it to other regimes of economic and gendered power.

[33] Harassed by his corporate boss, harried by his haughty mentor, Donald, desperate to reimagine his life, goes into the thrift store milieu familiar from Greetings and emerges garbed in “something seedy.” He then meets the apparitional embodiment of seediness: Allen Garfield, as Vic, a brassiere shop-owner, who coerces Donald into going to an orgiastic, never-ending party. Garfield seems to exist in these films to offer the Faustian bargain of male friendship or complicity in male relations to the protagonist. As in Hi, Mom!, Garfield signifies the crudest demands of the homosocial. Yet in that film, De Niro’s Peeping Jon soughthim out. In Get to Know Your Rabbit, the specter of Garfield rises up, unbidden. Garfield’s appearance here is almost aleatory, the sudden manifestation of the repressed homosocial id. Donald, of course, helplessly acquiesces to Vic’s desires and goes to the party with him.

[34] This party turns out to be a child’s nightmare of an adult party: claustrophobic, gaudy, packed with people, overladen with a suffocating sensuality, as such the inverse of the unsettling child’s party invaded by adults on the lam in Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent(1938). A goddessy, aloof, smiling woman who appears to be a model takes a shine to Donald. “Are you with someone?” Donald asks. “Is that type of cheap broad with no brassiere ever with anybody?” retorts Vic, with characteristic derisiveness. “She’s the type of cheap broad who knows exactly what to do in the backseat of a car.” Vic then drives them to his shop, where the woman will try on/model brassieres. As Vic is driving Donald and the model, who sit in Vic’s backseat, Vic encourages the physical expression of their desire. “I took the rear-view mirror off! Don’t worry!” he cackles. Once in the shop, Vic leaves Donald and the model alone together, and the mood turns swooningly romantic. When Vic returns, armed with more brassieres, the model, enchanted by Donald now, tells Vic, “I’m not in the mood anymore.” Vic grows monstrously angry, upbraiding them both. “I know what’s going on here … cheap broad!” he says. After his apoplectic fit, Vic calms down, grows sad and withdrawn, and Donald and the model comfort him.

[35] The scene with paranoid Vic’s sad rage is matched by two apposite subsequent ones. After his training of Donald has come to an end, Mr. Delasandro the magician asks Donald, “Would you like me to look upon you as the son I never had?”—to which question Donald imperturbably responds, “No.” “I hope this is not a decision you’ll regret,” responds the old wizard. Then, later, Donald discovers that his old boss Turnbull has become a shambling, unkempt hobo. (The rejection of Mr. Delasandro—of Orson Welles—is crucial. De Palma reveals his own ambivalence towards the great visual stylists [Welles, Hitchcock, Powell and Pressburger] whom he will emulate and reimagine.) Donald’s decision to extract himself from the homosocial realm leaves it in chaos. The three emissaries of the homosocial realm—Astin’s Turnbull, Welles’ Delasandro, Garfield’s Vic—all register, with alternate amounts of anxiety, disdain, despair, and rage, the terrible loss of individual dreamer Donald from the collective male ranks they represent. Yet of all of the loner-drifters in these three films, the Donald of Tom Smothers is surely the least appealing and sympathetic. Blank and blandly self-satisfied, he represents the triumph of the individual will but also the dark side of the individual will-to-power; the callousness and coldness of self-absorption, as evinced by Donald’s cruel response to Delasandro’s paternalistic plea. The son kills the father with unkindness.

Women and the Homosocial Sphere

[36] As the Rabbit episode with the woman with the brassieres suggests, De Palma’s allegiance lies with the sexually adventurous woman taking charge of her own body and its pleasures, which would appear to be a reference to the 1960s view of the feminist—in opposition to the sexually stringent second-wave feminism of a later era—as a bra- and girdle-burning rebel against sexual propriety and advocate for abortion rights and free love. The sexually adventurous woman is a major theme in later De Palma films such as the 1980Dressed to Kill; De Palma’s view of women and gender should be understood in terms of his counterculture, 60s sensibility. Given as well De Palma’s interest in the cruelty inherent, for him, in the homosocial sphere, a cruelty exemplified by the failure of male friendship, his treatment of women in films must be given a long overdue reappraisal and revaluation (as should his cinema). Women are the objects of exchange in these worlds dominated and controlled by men. As such, women in many De Palma films become representations of the corrupt interactions between men. This is not to say that women are merely treated as victims (as they are in, say, a film like Neil LaButes’s 1997 In the Company of Men). Women, whether brutalized or not, are often the central figures of De Palma films. The entire issue of femininity in De Palma’s films demands a much more careful treatment than it has generally yet received. (His intertextual Hitchcock project, not unrelated to the question of the representation of women, also demands a sustained analysis of the kind Robert E. Kapsis has modeled.) To offer only the beginnings of a reassessment of De Palma’s treatment of women, let us reiterate that femininity in De Palma’s films is intimately and inextricably linked to his politically radical deconstruction of relations between men.

[37] Briefly to return to Greetings, the kind of work I am asking to be done on De Palma should begin here, at least. This film makes starkly apparent the role of Woman in the realm of relations between men. Women become the counterbalance, the leverage, for the stability of male friendship. They do not need to be in the frame to pervade it. In one striking sequence, the three men are crawling around, vertiginously, on the ledge of a tall Manhattan building. As Lloyd, who, as Graham plays him, is by far the most sexually ambiguous of the three men, recounts his tale of sexual escapes with three women—”I was in a bod sandwich”—his two friends are shown to have fallen asleep. Noticing their lack of responsiveness, Lloyd yells at them: “Hey, come on!” His tale of masculine performance fails to mean unless heard by his compatriots.

[38] At one point, Paul goes to the home of a woman with whom he has a computer-dating-arranged assignation. During their conversation, he reveals that he doesn’t own a car and that he’s already eaten; he makes it clearly obvious that he is only there for sex. Brassy and demanding, she upbraids him for being ill-prepared for their date. Like a general describing the battle-readiness of his troops, she points to specific elements of her romantic-evening-ready attire: “You see these shoes? ‘Socialites’!” He wilts visibly under the glare of her scorn. She storms off. Yet when Paul goes to check in on her, she is lying in her bed, silent, naked. He walks off, and away. More than any other, a profound sense of loneliness, of a lack of connection, permeates this scene. This sense of cold isolation also tinges the scene in which Lloyd, feverishly pontificating over the JFK assassination and his multiple conspiracy theories, uses the silent, naked body of the woman he is in bed with as a living canvas, turning her over, and back again, drawing strategic sites of the grassy knoll upon her body. Like a cadaver, her body mutely complies with his feverish demands and doodling. The necrophiliac quality of this scene provides further evidence for the lack of relatedness between men and women, even in a scene that establishes physical intimacy between them. (The necrophilia here is too half-hearted to vie for the status of perversity.) On another computer date scene, a kind of Keystone Kops version of a porno, Paul and a woman have wild antic sex. Here, the footage is deliriously sped up, a blur—a fast-paced version of the solemn disconnection in the other versions of man-woman relations. The comical scenes in which De Niro’s Jon lures a stiff blonde woman (Rutunya Alda) back to his room, having convinced her he is a successful moviemaker, and takes pornographic pictures of her under false pretenses, adds to the senses of alienation and disconnection.

[39] All of the film’s themes culminate in the Vietnam jungle-set climax. Apparently, despite his ingenious efforts, Jon has been drafted. But he looks, in his military garb, talking to a TV reporter in as glib a fashion as before, hardly traumatized. More than anything, he appears quite tickled to be interviewed during his battle performance, like a boxer during intermission. He and the reporter notice a Vietnamese woman (who anticipates the tragically violated female figure Oahn in 1989Casualties of War). After questions of whether or not she is Viet Cong, Jon announces that he will have to shoot her, anyway—even though she (poignantly) waves a white flag. But when he goes up to her, the TV reporter and his crew behind him, he asks her to pose for the cameras, to disrobe: “take off your shoes—as if you were alone in your room.” As she complies and is filmed, De Palma (who edited this film as well) intercuts shots from the previous porno montage Jon had made with the blonde woman (Alda) he tricked. The Vietnam War has become yet another satirical blue movie—the lurid subject of puerile male fantasy. (In our Abu Ghraib era, in which the suffering of tortured prisoners becomes the occasion for all manner of media and theatrical play, the relevance of Greetingsendures.) But Jon shoots this woman just as decisively as if he’d used a rifle. Writing only a few years afterGreetings, Susan Sontag analyzed the act of photographing someone in this way:

To photograph people is to violate them …. it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder—a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time. (14-15)

This satirical scene is an only barely sublimated version of filmed murder—a comedic version of Vietnam War atrocity footage. The satire here is Swiftian, deadly. In this moment, De Palma equates the Viet Cong woman’s sexual exploitation with the militaristic exploitation of war and carnage, which the film has depicted as the culmination of masculinist cruelty. And by intercutting this scene with shots of the blonde woman who had been tricked into being photographed, De Palma condenses the tendency towards war and the tendency towards the exploitation of women into the same male obsessions.

[40] The approach to sexuality here—and I am making a comparison I have no doubt both filmmakers would reject—is close to Yvonne Rainer’s in her 1990 film, Privilege. Rainer creates a memorably tortured scene in that film: a young woman’s undergarments are pulled down with agonizing, infinite real time-slowness. Rainer captures the dehumanization of pornography. What De Palma achieves in this scene is quite similar—by linking pornography to war, he makes the statement that both are versions of rape. And in a metatextual way, through the stand-in figure of Jon, figured parodistically as the “director” of this scene, he indicts filmmakers as well for their sublimated versions of rape and even murder. A dizzying collapse of political questions, this scene climaxes, and with it, the film itself, with a reprise of LBJ’s speech: “I’m not saying you never had it so good, but that is a fact, isn’t it?” Now, the LBJ scene takes on a new and deeper resonance: it equates exploitation with the theme of knowledge. The sense that American men never have it so good as when they are playing at war and exploiting women becomes the “fact” of American male life males must helplessly acknowledge. The autoerotic, homoerotic perversity of male play, even embattled, fraught, endangered male play, cedes to the inevitable entrenchment and enforcement of the national masculinist superego.

[41] In Greetings, Allen Garfield, the “Smut Peddler,” prods De Niro’s Jon with his wares: pornos such as “Great Danes” and “The Horny Headmaster.” As they observe women, the Smut Peddler asks Jon, “Do you like girls? Would you like”—in reference to a blonde woman—”to bang her?” The first question is a kind of sexual rebuke. But the second question, fueled by a homoerotic complicity, is an invitation to male bonding. These films expose the underpinnings of male bonding in America—at least, the underpinnings as De Palma depicts them: a shared complicity in the brutalization of women and other men. In depicting, in these three films, the heterosexual-homosocial as a sphere of relations between men that are fraught with homosexual panic and internecine cruelty (to get only more fraught, more cruel, with each film), De Palma begins working on his vision of male friendship and the homosocial as breeding mills for duplicity, betrayal, and violation, themes which will become increasingly urgent and obsessive concerns throughout his career.

Works Cited

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  • —”Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. Ed. Diana Fuss. New York: Routledge, 1991.
  • Dollimore, Jonathan. Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
  • Fasteau, Marc. “Vietnam and the Cult of Toughness in Foreign Policy.” The American Man. Eds. Elizabeth H. Pleck and Joseph H. Pleck. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1980, 377-415.
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  • Kapsis, Robert E. Hitchcock: the Making of a Reputation. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1990.
  • Kipnis, Laura. Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America. New York: Grove Press, 1996.
  • Lindsey, Shelley Stamp. “Horror, Femininity, and Carrie’s Monstrous Puberty.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Barry Keith Grant, Editor. Austin: Texas UP, 1996.
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  • Žižek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge, Ma: MIT Press, 1992.
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  • —”When the Woman Looks.” Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism. Mary Anne Doane, Patricia Mellencamp, and Linda Williams, Editors. Los Angeles: The American Film Institute, 1984, pp. 83-99.