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Hollywood Heroines


Helen Hanson’s Hollywood Heroines: Women in Film Noir and the Female Gothic (I. B. Tauris, 2008) is a major contribution to challenging the film noir hardboiled paradigm.


Hanson’s first chapter, “At the Margins of Film Noir: Genre, Range and Female Representation,” is a model of the perspective about film noir that complements my own views, which were originally written before her book was published.

For example, in Film Noir: The Encyclopedia (Overlook Duckworth, 2010) the following paragraph opens my commentary about The Spiral Staircase. (For my full plot summary and commentary, see the page The Spiral Staircase.

The Spiral Staircase is a notable example of the kind of film noir that challenges traditional studies of film noir. For decades, terms and concepts that have been among the most frequently used to define film noir have not been applicable, in fact, to many movies that are considered film noir. As a rule, the film noirs that have gotten short shrift are “women’s pictures,” which are likely to take place in a home and deal with a romantic crisis (so-called “tear-jerkers,” “three hankies” or “weepies”). However, during the classic years of film noir, especially in the 1940s (less so in the 1950s), many women’s pictures are crime movies that have the characteristics of the noir visual style. What has prevented women’s film noirs from getting proper recognition is that both mass media and academic descriptions of film noir are devoted to “hardboiled.” As a result, film noir is reduced to these kinds of essentials: the protagonist is male (e.g., an investigator, a criminal, a victim of circumstance); the literary source is hardboiled crime fiction; there is brutal violence (by fists and guns); the time and place is a contemporary U.S. city (e.g., not Victorian London or a family’s home). This approach ignores the numerous published stories, novels and plays (or original screenplays) primarily addressing a female audience that were adapted into film noirs. It lavishes attention on the femme fatale and ignores the woman in distress, despite the latter’s equally strong presence in film noir. Because the quantity and quality of women’s film noirs favorably compare to “hardboiled” (“men’s”) film noirs, until women’s film noirs are properly recognized, a comprehensive history and balanced analysis of film noir will be, by definition, impossible.” (276)

Also in Film Noir: The Encyclopedia, my commentary about Moss Rose begins as follows. (For my full plot summary and commentary, see the page Moss Rose.)

“The longstanding view of film noir as having a male subject, with the female relegated to being an object (obstacle or enigma) in relation to the male, is unlikely to remain dominant. New perspectives about women in film noir will have to emerge, if for no other reason than to assess leading female characters in movies that are now acknowledged as film noirs but once were defined as not film noir. For example, film noir has been contrasted with “female gothic” (and related but not identical terms like “period film” and “gaslight melodrama”). The prime reason female gothic has been called different from film noir is its focus on a woman instead of a man.” (193-194)

Hanson says her first chapter will “explore the heterogeneity of film noir’s styles and narratives. It examines film noir’s historical coincidence with other forms, particularly the female gothic cycle of the 1940s…It suggests that noir’s ‘Ur’ narrative (a male investigation of a fatal female enigma) is only one strand in noir’s quite varied array.” (1)

She says, “Noir genre criticism has tended to emphasize its connection with ‘hard boiled’ detective and crime fictions…a connection that foregrounds male narrative centrality….” (19)

Hanson cites the views on film noir from a wide range of critics, both male and female. She says:

“These approaches are predicated on a definition of film noir as a male genre, envisaging a male sphere of action and control, where female agency is expressed in terms of trangressive (sic) desire. While the femme fatale figure has been an important one in initiating feminist debates about the politics of Hollywood representation…the story of film noir’s women is not reducible to this vice-virtue polarity. There is a much wider range of female characterization in the noir crime thriller during the 1940s, and these characters undertake roles and display agency in ways that are not solely reducible to their sexuality. The relative lack of critical engagement with these characters in the 1940s is due to the fact that the femme fatale has cast an imaginative shadow over the period, occluding and obscuring female roles that fit neither within the ‘vice’ or ‘virtue’ polarity of sexuality. This is partly attributable to noir’s identity as a discursively constructed category within genre debates, leading to a ‘consequent haziness about the contours of the larger noir canon’…Bringing the range of female characters of the 1940s out from under this shadow means looking again at noir’s contemporary moment, acknowledging the heterogeneous array of films and character types that comprise it, and registering their coexistence and popularity at the time.” (p. 4)

Hanson shows how working women provided an audience and women at Hollywood studios (such as scriptwriters) provided material to satisfy that audience. Not only were many women’s noirs released but they were also extremely popular at the box office. She says:

“The importance of female audiences and the presence of women workers in Hollywood conditioned and influenced film noir’s heterogeneity in its treatment of gender…The cultural and institutional environment in which Hollywood noir was produced and consumed in the 1940s resulted not in a clear generic form, stratified absolutely by gender, but one with multiple influences….” (11)

Hanson’s second chapter (“Reviewing the Female Gothic Heroine: Agency, Identification and Feminist Film Criticism”) is fascinating because she understands, in the historical context of some thirty years ago, what the reasoning (ideology, politics) was that led earlier feminist noir critics to celebrate the femme fatale while ignoring the woman in distress. From there she shows how this meant that the “second wave” feminists lined up with male critics is denying female gothic films were film noirs, as well as in constricting the “range” of female characters that were deemed worthy of critical attention.

Hanson has provided an exemplary challenge to the adherents of the film noir hardboiled paradigm. She is in the vanguard of a paradigm shift in representing what film noir actually is. The shift will have consequences for the old way of thinking. For example, it should affect acceptance of books about film noir that tell the reader he or she is going to visit, chapter by chapter, the characters that inhabit a “dark city.”

More revisionist historical analyses like Helen Hanson’s are needed that challenge the film noir hardboiled paradigm.

For example, if Hanson’s recommendation is heeded to see the “agency” in women in distress, whether in plots set in the gas-lit past or the atomic present of the 1940s, film noir studies will be profoundly impacted because turning attention to the woman in distress will undermine the hardboiled paradigm.

Developing a wide-angle view of film noir – as opposed to continuing to propagate the narrow view of past decades – will lead to better representations of film noir in books, journals and the mass media. The public, such as students in film noir classes and audiences at film noir festivals, will benefit from participating in the recognition of the actual breadth of characters and narratives in American film noir during the classic period.