Joanne Clarke Dillman, an alumna of our program and now a lecturer in Culture, Arts, and Communication at the University of Washington, Tacoma, has published a book titled Women and Death in Film, Television, and News. To learn more, check out her responses below:
What is your book about and what methods do you use to examine your research questions?
My book is about films, television shows, and news items from the 2000s that put a woman under erasure of death as the condition for her emergence in the story (in some cases, she is dead but not gone, and lives from beyond the grave). Examples include Corpse Bride, Dead Like Me, and The Lovely Bones. I also look at shows like CSI and films that use a woman’s graphic death to initiate the story, understanding that this has been a mainstay of the industry for years. What I am marking is the increasingly graphic nature of images of dead women and the centrality of their depiction to these cultural objects. I argue that the excessive nature of these graphic images is central to the cultural work they are doing.
I appropriate Mieke Bal’s feminist reading method (from her book called Death and Dissymmetry, 1988), which centers the dead woman (if she is not centered in the story space) and uses speech, focalization, and action to determine what the death signifies. While Bal was studying women in the Bible, I find that age-old, patriarchal interests still account for many of these deaths in representations today.
There are other visual culture scholars I lean on for my argument, including W.J.T. Mitchell, who argues that “images cannot say no to what they signify.” This seems very important to me, though he is speaking of still images, and I am thinking about moving images. He writes of the crossbar over a smoking cigarette to indicate “No smoking,” for example. What we generally argue with movies or television shows is that if the story ends with closure where the woman’s killer is captured or killed off (usually quickly), the story can be considered progressive in some sense (or even feminist if there is a woman detective). I’m arguing that the image component and the narrative component are two different registers in the viewing experience, and both have an impact. The image component—the woman’s beaten body, her graphically rendered death, or the outcome of that death (the corpse)—has a power that is in excess of the narrative register. These images are used to discipline and frighten. I don’t find that the endings compensate the viewer or decathect the power of the images that we’ve seen during the film or television show.
What led you to this research topic and how did it build off of your dissertation?
I was very sensitized to changes in our media culture when I started my PhD at George Mason in the autumn of 2001. I had been living in Egypt and Turkey for six years, and when I returned home I was somewhat shell-shocked by the changed content. I remembered television as Sex and the City, Xena: Warrior Princess, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I came home to dead bodies—generally those of women—on primetime television and in films. Think of the proliferation of the CSI universe (CSI: Las Vegas, CSI: New York, and CSI: Miami), the shows Special Victims Unit and Law and Order, and many, many films that feature dead women. Two that I examine in the book are Minority Report and Déjà Vu. I found the graphic nature of the attacks on and/or deaths of women excessive and surprising.
What I am essentially arguing is that, while women made great strides in the late twentieth century in the real world, a different story is being told in representation. And at the same time that feminist media studies scholars have critiqued the mainstream for images of violence and sexism, media images have grown increasingly more sexualized where women and girls are concerned and grown more graphically violent as well. So, what I am theorizing is that the visual arena of representation is the space where a battle of the sexes is being fought—and in the decade of the 2000s, it’s very one-sided. This battle can be seen but not stated as such. Symbolically, primarily white, middle class women who are the public face of feminism are being beaten back (to death). It seems to me that these dead women in representation are the collateral damage to the terrific gains women have made in the real world. I came to theorize that these women symbolize the graphic evidence of a culture that doesn’t yet know how to respond to the very real advances women have made in contemporary life.
Of course, the real world women I examine, such as Chandra Levy, Laci Peterson, and Natalee Holloway, reflect some kind of symbolic signification, too. But in these cases I am examining the conventions of how the news media report these stories and commodify painful tragedies for viewer consumption.
Will you continue researching the same topic now that your book is published, and if so, what follow-up research is planned?
In some ways I am continuing to track this idea. I think Gone Girl, for instance, uses these tropes for a woman’s own ends. But I am considering more broadly the wider reception of women’s critique of mainstream culture that is playing out regularly in the media. For example, I’m thinking of Anita Sarkeesian, the young video game critic who has received death threats (anonymously) for being critical of sexist violence in video games, or the women of Gamer-gate, or Ashley Judd, whose Twitter feed seems to peeve critics to respond in a hostile manner to her tweets.
I’m trying to understand the process by which feminist criticism of the mainstream media by a woman is drowned out by a deluge of (anonymous) reactive speech (one assumes by disgruntled men), which is then considered “free speech” rather than hate speech. What about the woman’s free speech? This is an area I am following and interested in now. This phenomenon suggests to me that women’s autonomy—meaning women speaking out in the public arena as they see fit—is still being actively countered and policed in representation.
May 19, 2015