High Contrast

Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film By Sharon Willis

Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film is one of the most informed critical examinations published to date of the intersection of gender and race (reversal of words intended, as explained below) with respect to contemporary cinema. Willis forces the reader to appreciate the utility of theoretical concepts in their applicability to the readings and interpretations she imposes on contemporary films. She utilizes such tools with eloquence and brilliance in deconstructing motivating factors that might induce gender and race to assume a performative function in controlling the gaze of spectators.

Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film is divided into two sections. As noted above, Willis’s material suggests the need for reversing the words in her title; her first section examines films that allow her to provide a specifically feminist (and also racial) reading (e.g., Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Fatal Attraction, Someone to Watch Over Me, Sea of Love, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Basic Instinct, Thelma & Louise, Terminator 2). Willis contends that this section was designed to examine “big-budget treatments of the `battle of the sexes’ in an effort to show how collective fantasies and anxieties about other forms of social edifference–race, sexuality, ethnicity, and class– may be mapped onto, and embedded within, an arena that understands itself to be primarily organized by heterosexual negotiations and conflicts”.

For the purpose of Willis’s work, race is reduced to the African-American experience as rendered in these films, to the exclusion of other ethnicities that might similarly be categorized under the rubric of race. However, because some of the films present (a) only one or two African-American characters, and (b) characters who are confined to marginal roles, these films provide a primarily feminist reading of the text rather than a racial reading, as they intersect.

For example, Willis prefaces her examination of Die Hard and Lethal Weapon with the assertion that she intends to explore “the ways in which black-and-white bonding takes place across and through the spectacle of the battered white male body, displacing any aggressive component into vicious combat between white men”. Willis demonstrates skill and insight in her reading of how race is utilized to foreground white masculinity. Critiquing Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, Willis takes the position that these films suggest that “feminine force seems to arise at the direct expense of masculine power and bodily integrity”, and that femininity becomes inextricably linked to masculinity, a position widely shared by feminist film critics. Willis claims that these films, and Fatal Attraction in particular, focus “on an urgent effort to reinscribe the border of sexual difference at exactly the divide between domestic interior and public space”. Willis prefaces her examination of Thelma & Louise with the questions, “Whose fantasies are these? What does it mean to use a possessive term here in relation to fantasy structures? How does the uneasy possessive relate to the troubling effects of linking women to violence?”. She provides an intriguing, compelling, and forceful response, adding to the plethora of literature that examines the intersection of race and gender in contemporary cinema.

The second section of Willis’s work examines the films produced by auteur filmmakers David Lynch, Spike Lee, and Quentin Tarantino. Without examining the entire body of these filmmakers’ works, Willis focuses her investigation by invoking a single argument; her central thesis examines how each work is metaphorically transfigured into the filmmaker’s own persona as it represents auteur filmmakers. For example, Willis suggests that Lynch’s name becomes a metaphor for the “Lynch- effect,” which she characterizes as “the site traversed by conscious and unconscious discourse that gives a name and historical location to the film”. She applies this by subtly weaving into her critique of Wild at Heart her surmise that in the lynching, “the brutal murder of a black man by a white man is surreptitiously charged to the white woman’s account”.

Critiquing Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, Willis contends that “Lee always emerges in his films as both a slippery, ambivalent, and slightly shady character, who is often the object of implicit critique, and who functions as an extradiegetic resistance interrupting the narrative texture. As a textual figure, then, Lee circulates his own body and image through his films as he does those of many of his regular actors”. Willis further argues that while the dominant media read the film as a failed ethnography of interracial relationships, “it overlooked the possibility that the film might perform another ethnography, an ethnography of the dominant white gaze”.

As for Quentin Tarantino, Willis opens her discussion by asserting that it is no accident that he confines his films to the bathroom, which “anchors a dense nexus that connects blood and violence to anal eroticism and smearing”. Willis continues: “It thus permits delicate intersections of aggressive soiling impulses with tense efforts to consolidate, to clean, and to retain at the literal level and with social hygienic dreams of sanitizing a word like `nigger’ at the figurative level” (189). Willis then reduces Tarantino’s auteur status to being “closely coincident with his cult status” which can be attributed to the fact that “the filmmaker’s persona and his film embody a nostalgia for a 1970s that is continually circulating in television, videocassettes, and radio”.

Willis’s study is limited by the small body of contemporary films she critiques. There is also a question about her title vis-a-vis material: the title foregrounds race, when in reality the book is much more about gender. Also, she specifically addresses African Americans. As for gender, although Willis makes a strong case for advancing the straggle of feminists to liberate themselves from continued male domination as transformed in cinema, her critique of exclusively male auteur filmmakers might undermine the struggle she so forcefully advances.

One of Willis’s most compelling revelations is her assertion that the truth of whiteness might emerge in another’s gaze. But the dominant culture posits this gaze only in order to represent it consistently as internalized and ventriloquized, as a marker of difference in a scene where subjects do not engage in reciprocal exchange, but, rather, in mutual surveillance. So while such figures mark allusions to the social field, they simultaneously operate as indexes of paranoid fantasies that situate African Americans as the ones who know the truth about race, while avoiding any occasion for a reciprocated gaze that would cause the dominant culture to look at itself through another’s eyes (5-6).

In the final analysis, for those working in cinema–whether contemporary or historical–Willis’s work is a must read

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