If, as many theorists claim, our world is made-up of many Others (especially, but not only, with regards to race and gender), where, if anywhere, can we genuinely meet the Other? Where, if anywhere, can a meeting occur between Others which is not somehow infected by the discourse and ideology of Otherness? If this idea seems like a contradiction then it serves only to highlight our difficulty; it does not make the dilemma any less relevant. Is a truly equal two-way communication between Others possible? Or are the cards always stacked in favour of one group? In this essay, I aim to explore the notion of film comedy as a place for Others to “meet”. I have limited my exploration to race and gender, although it would be equally interesting to look at other divisions between individuals such as social class and sexuality. One aim of this essay is to argue that examples from a variety of films can highlight the way in which gendered Otherness is quite different to racial Otherness and that each requires an approach quite different from (so to speak) the other.
Comedy and the Feminist Critique of Descartes
In his book, On Humour, the philosopher Simon Critchley offers a Cartesian explanation of why our bodies are regularly exploited for the purposes of comedy:
There are a whole range of experiences… where the body that I am becomes the body that I have… Humour functions by exploiting the gap between being a body and having a body, between – let us say – the physical and the metaphysical aspects of being human. What makes us laugh, I would wager, is the return of the physical into the metaphysical (1).
Recall, for instance, the infamous scene in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) in which Mr Blonde slices off a cop’s ear. Disturbing as this scene is, one cannot help but laugh when Mr Blonde, holding the dismembered ear in his hand, puts it to his mouth and speaks into it as if the cop can still hear through it. This moment presents us with an uncanny horror – the realisation that one part of our subjective gaze (our hearing) is both dependent on an organ and yet not at all located within that organ. But lest we become too consciously aware of our floating, disconnected gaze, we quickly chuckle and continue watching the movie. Widespread throughout both film studies and critical theory is talk about both the “sexuated” body. It therefore follows that any Cartesian explanation of comedy must take into account feminist critiques of Descartes’ cogito. This is my starting point for exploring the meeting of men and women within the realm of comedy.
Well-known to fans of low-budget, splatter-filled comedy horror films, Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985) has earned its reputation as a classic of genre on the strength of one completely unforgettable scene: a terrified young woman (Barbara Crampton) is strapped to a table and drooled over by a zombie holding his own decapitated head in his hands. The zombie then literally puts his head between her legs and performs cunnilingus on her. Again, the contours of a Cartesian joke can be discerned: given that we usually think of male sexual pleasure as being located in the genitals, what possible sexual enjoyment can a decapitated head derive from such a grossly obscene act? Of course, the immediate feminist response would be to point out that the scene presents us with the aggressive, sexual humiliation of a woman not in order to satisfy the diegetic sexual pleasures of the zombie but, instead, to satisfy the desire of male viewers to see a woman sexually humiliated onscreen.
Yet there is much more that needs to be said, for the scene in Re-Animator articulates an interesting, possibly misogynistic, stance towards male and female sexual pleasure. Many feminists have argued that Descartes paved the way for thinkers such as Rousseau to associate men with the mind, culture and intelligence and women with the body, nature and a nurturing sensibility especially suited to rearing children (2). Is this split not also detectable in this scene? The zombie’s sexual pleasure is located in his evil mind, his jouissance derives from the knowledge that he is humiliating his victim; the woman’s horror, however, is located, not in her knowledge of the humiliation, but in her body itself – it is the physical sensation of the zombie’s tongue against her skin that causes her to scream.
Zizek and the Defence of Descartes
Having applied a possible feminist critique of the Cartesian cogito to the most famous scene in Re-Animator, this essay will now take something of a detour, at the end of which we will re-examine the same scene and (possibly) find ourselves justified in defending it. The starting point on this detour is to reject the standard feminist/deconstructionist criticism of the cogito. To do this, I draw upon the recent revival of the Cartesian subject by Slavoj Zizek:
What one should always bear in mind is how the Cartesian de-substantialization of the subject, its reduction to $, to the pure void of self-relating negativity, is strictly correlative to the opposite reduction of man to a grain of dust in the infinity of the universe… Although Descartes is also accused of patriarchal bias (the unmistakable male features of the cogito), does not his formulation of cogito as pure thought which, as such, “has no sex” mark the first break from pre-modern sexualized ontology? (3)
Zizek’s unfashionable rehabilitation of Descartes’ project therefore emphasises the notion of the cogito as the moment of “pure thought”, utterly devoid of content. Furthermore, the cogito needs to be distinguished from Cartesian dualism: we do not need to believe in the complete ontological separation of mind and body to realise that (to recall the above example from Reservoir Dogs) although our subjectivity is dependent on the existence of our bodies, it is not located within any specific part of our body; this is why the standard, scientific, commonsense rejection of Descartes along the lines of “well, studies of brain damaged patients tells us we do indeed think with our brains” must be met with the fact that just because we need, for instance, blood to think, this does not necessarily mean that we think with our blood.
So if a non-sexist Cartesian approach to the split between being and having a body is possible, should this pave the way for a non-sexist approach to visual comedy? In other words, do scenes like the one in Re-Animator not rely on an inherently flawed, sexist reading of the cogito? Hold that thought!
Interlude: Racial Otherness and Comedy
Let us think about a parallel problem – visual humour which depends on the existence of racial differences between characters. Recall, for instance, a scene from the Cairo segment of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) finds himself facing, gunslinger-style, an accomplished Arab swordsman. Preparing to fight, the Arab shows off his elaborate swordsmanship in order to intimidate the film’s hero, Indiana. Yet it becomes clear that this moment has been nothing more than an opportunity for the American archaeologist to catch his breath (having been in a lengthy fight immediately preceding this incident) and he simply draws his pistol and shoots the Arab dead. We cannot avoid noticing Spielberg’s borrowing of a genre convention (the “gunslinger showdown”) more typically associated with the Western, which invests the scene with a rather unpleasant racism whereby the ancient traditional skill and talent of the Arab is reduced to a useless and irrelevant pre-modern barbarism in the face of Western technology. Perhaps it was due to Spielberg’s social conscience that this joke was reversed in an explicit moment of directorial intertextuality in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984): Indiana, faced with exactly the same situation, finds himself inconveniently out of bullets; yet having initially smirked whilst reaching for his pistol, his attitude comes across as displaying Western arrogance and an over-reliance on technology.
Yet what must be remembered is that Western civilisation, as a modernist – and perhaps now a postmodernist – project, resolutely does consider itself superior to pre-modern societies. Therefore, is not Spielberg’s original joke in Raiders the more honest one? Does not the later joke in Temple of Doom simply come across as patronising – just another example of the enigma of postmodernism whereby two contradictory attitudes apathetically coexist? A comment made by Zizek in an interview might help us here:
When people ask me: “How can you be sure that you are not a racist?” My answer is that there is only one way. If I can exchange insults, brutal jokes, dirty jokes, with a member of a different race and we both know it’s not meant in a racist way. If, on the other hand, we play this politically correct game – “Oh, I respect you, how interesting your customs are” – this is inverted racism, and it is disgusting. In the Yugoslav army where we were all of mixed nationalities, how did I become friends with Albanians? When we started to exchange obscenities, sexual innuendo, jokes (4).
But a distinction must be drawn here: there is a different relationship formed between individuals who might meet in real life and exchange “insults”, and the relationship between cultures, meeting within the context of cinema. For a Slovenian and Albanian to become friends face-to-face they must recognise that the (lower case) other is, in a sense, more than the (upper case) Other, and that the thorny political relationship between Slovenia and Albania is merely an obstacle which any genuine friendship will overcome. In the onscreen confrontation between Indiana Jones and the Arab and Indian warriors, however, there is no meeting of individual persons, only a confrontation between cultures. In this sense, Indiana Jones’ enemies are what Zizek describes as “reduced others”, figures which have been reduced to racist stereotypes. Unlike the real life relationship between two individuals who may reciprocate each other’s insults, the relationship between cultures in the cinema is strictly a one-way affair. Furthermore, we should add that it is not possible for a filmmaker, even with a social conscience as admirably well-intentioned as Spielberg’s, to reciprocate “for” the other in the way that he clearly tires to do in Temple of Doom. We must therefore accept that both jokes, in both films, are equally racist, dishonest and ethically unacceptable.
Sexual Politics and the Subjectivisation of Gender
Now we must return to a question we left hanging: should the genderless, non-sexist reformulation of Descartes’ cogito pave the way for an equally non-sexist ethics of visual comedy between men and women? Here we must consider the way in which Zizek moves from the cogito as “pure thought” devoid of any mark of sex to a being with a sense of sexual identity. Drawing on Lacan, Zizek calls this move “subjectivization” – a moment when the “pure thought” of the subject attempts (and, crucially, fails) to integrate itself into the Symbolic network of signifiers:
Lacan is… as far as possible from the notion of sexual difference as the relationship of two opposite poles which supplement each other and together form the whole of man: “masculine” and “feminine” are not the two species of the genus of man but, rather, the two modes of the subject’s failure to achieve the full identity of man… It is man who is wholly submitted to the phallus, whereas it is woman who, through the inconsistency of her desire, attains the domain “beyond the phallus”. Only woman has access to the Other (non-phallic) enjoyment (5).
In Lacanian theory, the phallic economy is equal to the public Law (the contents, rules, etc of the Symbolic Order). Zizek utilises a useful comparison with prison life: whenever a prisoner begins a life sentence, they can submit completely to the phallic economy of the prison by believing their life to be effectively over (equivalent to the “masculine” position) or they can view the prison rules as just a new set of symbolic constraints through which to carry on living life (equivalent to the “feminine” position) (6). So what Zizek means when he claims that “only woman has access to the Other (non-phallic) enjoyment” is that women are less constrained in their enjoyment by symbolic prohibitions than men.
To return to the cunnilingus scene in Re-Animator – let us briefly imagine an alternative scenario whereby the zombie decapitates the woman and uses her head to satisfy himself by simulating fellatio. This would be a misogynist fantasy par excellence because it lies entirely within the male phallic economy of reducing the woman to, quite literally, a dead sex object. Furthermore, do Lacan’s formulae of sexuation not provide us with a deeper understanding of why yet another scenario –the zombie performing cunnilingus on a decapitated female corpse – whilst completely breaking the alienating, Cartesian tension between being and having a body, would have still have been even more amusing? This would have been a brilliantly absurd scene: a male zombie, retaining the phallic function and, thus, blindly performing cunnilingus despite the absence of both the woman and her pleasure!
A female acquaintance of mine, herself a fan of splatter films, recently claimed she finds the Re-Animator scene, with its subtle acknowledgement of the sexual politics of cunnilingus, absolutely hilarious and not at all offensive to women. I have argued that there can be no genuine two-way meeting of different races and cultures in film because one cannot speak for the Other. The question must now be raised: what about the meeting between men and women in film? Here I refer not just to the meeting of individual male and female characters onscreen, but the meeting of the two genders themselves. If this is possible, can Zizek’s notion that “the one measure of true love is that you can insult the other” take place on the cinema screen without merely reinforcing patriarchal ideology? To answer this, I believe that we must place such a project firmly within the domain of comedy, the only genre in which an insult can be seen as good-natured. Furthermore, we need to think seriously and carefully about what specific problem we are trying to overcome in taking such a stance. There is a great irony in the fact that whilst our genre of interest here is comedy, the decision to insult the other should under no circumstances be taken lightly.
First, the problem. Again, Zizek presents us with a challenge:
Say I am passionately attached, in love, or whatever, to another human being and I declare my love, my passion for him or her. There is always something shocking, violent in it. This may sound like a joke, but it isn’t – you cannot do the game of erotic seduction in politically correct terms. There is a moment of violence, when you say: “I love you, I want you.” In no way can you bypass this violent aspect (7).
Is this dilemma, if not familiar to all of us, at the very least familiar to fans of Woody Allen’s romantic comedies? Recall, for instance, the scene in Annie Hall (1977) when, on their first meeting, Alvy (Woody Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) find themselves engaged in an inane discussion about photography whilst their real thoughts (him: “I wonder what she looks like naked”; her: “Gee, I hope he doesn’t turn out to be a schmuck” et cetera) are displayed as subtitles along the bottom of the screen. What should be noted here is that both characters know that neither of them is fully focussed on the topic at hand. Indeed, the paradox is that despite the fact that they both know, roughly, what the other is thinking, if these thoughts were discussed openly, it would immediately kill any possible relationship between them. So here is the problem: many men and women want an intimate relationship with the other, yet both face the stumbling block of polite dating etiquette and are left to negotiate a tortuous path through the network of signifiers; and, as Zizek points out, we cannot bypass the “violent” aspect if we are to eventually get where we want to be. The irony is that these obstacles are both necessary and desirable. Since the late-1960s, attempts to erase the symbolic network of signifiers by pursuing an ideology of “free love” have almost always ended in disaster and, in the worst instances, systematic incest and rape (see, for example, the failure of Otto Mühl’s communal living experiment, leading to his imprisonment for child molestation (8)).
My general conclusion, therefore, is that the genre of romantic comedy provides men and women with the opportunity to acknowledge both the existence of the symbolic obstacle course and the shared awkwardness each feels in playing this apparently silly game. To take a recent example, this theme is right at the heart of Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003) although in quite a unique way because, rather than negotiate the obstacle course, Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) find themselves trying to avoid it altogether, not to reach the act of sexual consummation, but in order to foreclose the possibility of a sexual act and thus sustain a more intense connection beyond any regular experience of friendship. Although the reasons for Bob and Charlotte’s success in this endeavour include the circumstances of their meeting (strangers in a strange land, a considerable age difference, other relationship commitments et cetera), one of the crucial factors is their refusal to explicitly address the issue of their sexual tension. Contrast this with Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally (1989): here the eponymous couple explicitly address the issue of sexual tension (in other words, the famed premise of the film: can a man and a woman be friends without sex getting in the way?) and the result is failure. The narrative of When Harry Met Sally is testimony to the transferential nature of love – although we may think that love in a Western democracy is a matter of acting as free-willing consumers, it is actually a blind, unconscious operation that exerts an influence on us in the same way that the weather can covertly influence our mood. It can surely be no accident that Harry (Billy Crystal) comes to the realisation that he loves Sally (and must run several blocks through New York to tell her immediately and unexpectedly) whilst window-shopping, the ultimate in sustaining the illusion of free will in a consumer economy. Far from deciding to pick Sally out from a selection of possibilities, Harry realises that, in love, there is no free choice; he has been duped by ideology and, on some level, the futility of his window-shopping forces him to realise this. Yet this is not to say that Harry and Sally were completely determined by forces outside of them: through a kind of self-referential loop, they set in motion the factors which determined their eventual marriage to one another. One of these factors was their crucial conversation at the beginning of the film, in which they argued about whether men and women can ever be “just” friends. Is this not exactly the same as what happens in psychoanalysis when, unexpectedly, the analysand experiences the enigma of the analyst’s desire in what is an absolutely dependable and essential part of the psychoanalytic process (i.e. transference)?
Comedy and Ideology in the Post-Feminist Era
Finally, one more objection must be raised and examined: is it not the case that romantic comedies have traditionally been full of ideology? Of course, before the sexual revolution of the 1960s and second-wave feminism, many romantic comedies were indeed lamentable for their sexist depiction of relations between men and women. But then sexually-liberated “New Hollywood” arrived, with its desire to strike out at sexist, racist “Old Hollywood” values. Whether the New Hollywood generation championed sexual and racial equality because its members were really committed to these political causes or simply because social equality was an issue on which their great enemy, Old Hollywood, was vulnerable to criticism is beyond the scope of this essay. The result, however, was a decade-long run of films which explored the relationship between men and women with a feminist critique lurking in the background: one thinks of films such as Five Easy Pieces (1970), Taxi Driver (1976) and even The Godfather (1972).
But the late 1960s and ’70s were a unique period in the development of feminism and, as such, the issues could not be ignored by filmmakers seeking to connect with their youthful, more liberated audience. Today, however, Hollywood’s target audience of 18 to 25 year olds requires a strictly post-feminist approach to gender issues. Indeed, labelling a film as lamentably sexist as American Pie (1999) “post-feminist” is probably kinder than the work itself deserves. Yet herein lies a useful lesson: should we not point to the mainstream acceptability of American Pie as evidence of its post-feminist ideological position? When put like this, perhaps the extremely “sick”, non-mainstream comedy of Re-Animator is not so bad after all. When the two genders seek to laugh with each other at the absurd, yet necessary, symbolic obstacles they face in relating to each other, perhaps they should laugh at their differences immediately after subjectivisation and, if at all possible, before the intervention of ideology.
- Simon Critchley, On Humour, Routledge, London, 2002, pp. 42–43.
- See, for example, Moria Gatens, Feminism and Philosophy, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1991.
- Slavoj Zizek, Plague of Fantasies, Verso, London, 1997, p. 12.
- Sabine Reul and Thomas Deichmann, “The One Measure of True Love is: You Can Insult the Other”, spiked-culture, 15 November 2001, accessed September 2004.
- Zizek, “Otto Weininger, or ‘Woman Doesn’t Exist’” in Elizabeth Wright and Edmond Wright (eds.), The Zizek Reader, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 1999, pp. 145–146.
- Zizek, The Indivisible Remainder, Verso, London, 1996, p. 158.
- Reul and Deichmann.
- Andrew Grossman, “An Actionist Begins To Sing: An Interview With Otto Mühl” in Bright Lights Film Journal, no. 38, November 2002, accessed September 2004.