by Aspasia Kotsopoulos and Josephine Mills
Cut, no. 39, June 1994, pp.
At first, THE CRYING GAME (Neil Jordan, 1992) seemed like a startling breakthrough in mainstream cinema. According to all the early reports that we heard from our friends, here at last was a film that proved that compulsory heterosexuality could be challenged and yet the film could appeal to a wide audience. Everyone to whom we initially talked lauded the progressive quality of this film. So we faced a shock, not in Dil's unveiling, but in discovering a plethora of plot devices and characters at odds with the freshness of seeing a transvestite at the center of a popular film.
For a start, why did no one mention the horrendous representation of the lone woman in this film, Jude (Miranda Richardson), as a chameleon bitch murdered for her treacherous femininity? Everyone talked about the relationship between Dil (Jaye Davidson) and Fergus (Stephen Rea), but why didn't anyone mention Fergus and Jody (Forest Whitaker)? We proceeded to do research, and read about fifty articles and reviews from Canada and the United States. Surprising to us, many reviewers described the film as a "comedy" and referred to the central relationship as "perverse," [open notes in new window] while simultaneously claiming that the film dealt with difficult political issues. None of the descriptions coming from either the progressive community or from the mainstream press fit the film we saw. To us, THE CRYING GAME espoused a reactionary position with respect to women, blacks and queers, and displaced concrete political concerns onto a transhistorical notion of human nature. We set out to explore our reading of THE CRYING GAME considering its misogyny as a starting point.
Particularly useful in our exploration of the role of women in THE CRYING GAME is a historical consideration of film noir. While THE CRYING GAME is not an example of film noir, it borrows some clearly — and perhaps some not so clearly — recognizable conventions from that genre. This includes the codification of Jude as a film noir spider woman in a costume that suggests the 1940s, the period out of which film noir emerges. Most of all, THE CRYING GAME's similarities to film noir occur at the level of theme or ideological project and not style.
Film noir's ideological project is to alleviate male confusion over women's roles or sexual identity through the restoration of Woman to patriarchy. Film noir develops in the mid-40s as a response to women's new found, wartime independence and constitutes a backlash. Frank Krutnick (1991) asserts that a large number of noir films are concerned with the woman who seeks self-definition outside family and home, and are symptomatic of that period's "male sexual paranoia." Simply put, the independent woman is perceived in these films as an assault on masculine identity (61-3). Film noir's meta-discourse on women and its emergence during a period of patriarchal retrenchment has a relation to film noir revivals of the early 70s and early 80s, periods which experienced a recurring cycle of anti-feminist backlash. It is within this context that we wish to consider women and "postfeminism" in THE CRYING GAME.
Reviews of the film either do not mention the character of Jude or refer in passing to her as the "alluring blonde" used by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to trap a "black British soldier." Yet she has an important narrative function. She provides an all-too-easy means of closure to a narrative that would otherwise surely spill out, given the socio-political context of Britain and Northern Ireland. To speak of THE CRYING GAME as progressive means to ignore the portrayal and treatment of Jude, the only "woman" in the film.
We put "woman" in quotation marks because Jude very clearly represents a type: the spider woman or femme fatale of film noir who tempts men with her sexuality and destroys them when they cannot resist her. The spider woman is not inherently evil, but rather her attractiveness and unknowability make her dangerous. She must he recuperated by either her annihilation or her final restoration as good object within the patriarchal order. Moreover, in such films women are defined by their sexuality. Significantly, the femme fatale's sexual power tends to he overvalued by the male characters (Krutnick 64). Male fears of the economically independent career woman become displaced onto the threat of a destructive female sexuality.
The noir-influenced thriller THE CRYING GAME almost immediately marks Jude as possessing a dangerous, ominous sexual power as she uses her feminine wiles to ensnare Jody in an IRA kidnapping. Jody begs his captors to not leave him alone with Jude because, he insists, "She's dangerous." Curiously, Jody never blames Peter (Adrian Dunbar), the IRA leader of the operation, even though Peter is more inclined to mentally abuse the captive. Later, when Jody describes his romantic relationship with Dil to Fergus, the Irishman asks why Jody was "fucking around" on her with Jude if he was so in love. "That bitch!" exclaims Jody, implying that it was impossible for him to resist Jude's feminine power. She is dangerous in his eyes because she is a woman and because she is sexually attractive.
The film never expresses that Jude is politically active — doing her job, so to speak, because she believes in the goals of the IRA. Only briefly when she talks about her role in the kidnapping, she says, "Someone had to do it." Like her predecessor, Mildred Pierce, Jude dares to seek an identity outside the traditional confines of home and family — but in a career of terrorism rather than restauranteurship. Still, she can be read as a New Woman, independent and driven, and in her last incarnation, a "power-dressed businesswoman" who happens to be in the business of assassinating British judges. Despite establishing her as a character who works for the IRA, the film resolutely displaces Jude's political motives onto her treacherous female sexuality.
A consideration of the Jewish heroine Judith of Bethulia, from whom Jude's name derives, reveals that THE CRYING GAME places Jude in the same impossible, unenviable position as her namesake. It is illuminating to consider briefly the parallels between the two women and their stories. Judith, the story goes, saved the Jewish people by using her feminine wiles to cross enemy Assyrian lines. She then seduced the Assyrian commander Holofernes and beheaded him while he was drunk. Interestingly, Renaissance depictions of this event suggest that the story of Judith and Holofernes came to be perceived as "an allegory of man's misfortunes at the hands of a scheming woman" (Hall 1974:181). This is despite the fact that Judith is considered a freedom-fighter by Jews. Jude receives the same treatment in THE CRYING GAME: all we need to know as viewers is that Jude is bad. And if we don't see that at the beginning, then the over-coding of Jude's body by the end ensures that we do.
Jude's physical appearance undergoes three transformations in the course of the narrative. When we first encounter her, she is a blonde working-class woman in tight mini-skirt, sexually enticing a black soldier in civvies at an amusement park. The second time we see her she is in an oversized fisherman's sweater with clean-scrubbed face, obediently serving tea and sandwiches to the male IRA members at their hideout. The third time we come across her is in London. Here, she is a virtual cardboard cutout of the film noir, femme fatale with dark, severe-looking hair, red lips, and a 1940s Joan Crawford-esque suit, complete with pumps and leather gloves to match. What was only articulated earlier through Jody's words is now made visible. Jude's hair and costuming code her as dangerous and threatening, a phallic woman who must he destroyed. She comments to Fergus at their reunion that she needed a "tougher look." Ironically, she does not understand that her new look renders her a scapegoat for the narrative's loose ends, which must be tied up to effect closure, specifically, to provide a sense that justice has been done.
Typically in film noir and elsewhere, notions of duplicity center around the feminine. Kaja Silverman (1986) argued that women's ability to change their appearance more drastically and frequently than men because of greater fashion options has historically rendered femininity an unstable signifier:
Male dress on the other hand, Silverman says,
Although it may undergo minor variations, the suit and tie, explains Silverman, has been a constant since it became the uniform of the Western bourgeois male in the eighteenth century. Male costuming has come to signify the constancy and stability of male sexual identity and authority, placing masculinity firmly in line with the symbolic order.
Jude's frequent transformations in appearance make her identity unknowable to the men in the film and to us. Because she is chameleon-like, she cannot be trusted and proves disloyal and unreliable with men. Moreover, her presence is disruptive. When she appears in London as the vengeful spider woman she throws everything into disorder, in particular the newly reconciled relationship of Fergus (who is in London under the alias of Jimmy) and Dil.
At this point, Jude intoduces an oppressive tone of danger, betrayal, jealousy and viciousness into the narrative (consider, for example, the catty exchanges between her and Dil). She insinuates herself into the lives of Fergus and Dil, and inescapably and inexplicably materializes everywhere they go: at the hair salon where Dil works, at a South Asian restaurant where the couple are dining, and at the bar where Fergus and Dil hang out. Her omnipresence increases her threat.
While film noir demonstrates that the spider woman's power is terrifying, it simultaneously gives sanction to the narrative to proceed with her destruction (Place 1978:43-5). In the latter half of THE CRYING GAME, Jude is often photographed in ways which express her dangerousness. In the scene where she appears suddenly at Fergus' apartment, the framing at an odd, oblique angle and low-key lighting, which casts shadows from the window blinds on the wall, create a sense of threat and dread. In this scene, she grabs Fergus by the balls and demands that he fuck her. The repulsive tone of this act proves that sexual aggression — a sign of masculinity — is treacherous in women. Later in the film, when Jude is "suiting up" to assassinate a British judge, she stands in front of a paneled mirror which shows her as split off into three images, one perhaps for each of her incarnations. Common in film noir, the mirror expresses the spider woman's duplicitous nature. The mirror also suggests narcissism, a destructive trait in the film noir woman, suggesting as it does absorption in herself and not in a man, which would constitute proper femininity (Place 47-8).
The mirror sequence is an interesting one because "suiting up," as a stock sequence in action-adventure films, is usually reserved for bulky, well-armed male protagonists. As she gazes at her image in the mirror to make adjustments to her appearance, Jude places a gun into her leather purse, demonstrating that she possesses in Janey Place's words, an "'unnatural' phallic power" (43). As phallic woman Jude signifies female masculinity. (This will figure importantly later in the discussion of both Dil's and Fergus' possession of male femininity.) The use of masculinizing gun iconography, oblique angles, low-key lighting, and femme fatale costuming constructs Jude as owning an omnipotent, threatening power that must be destroyed. Jude is set up visually to take the fall for the narrative's disequilibrium — whether she is actually to blame for it or not. As Claire Johnston states in her discussion of Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) in DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944),
For all the lack of attention Jude/Miranda Richardson has received in discussions and reviews of the film, it is Jude — as femme fatale — who alone appears on the poster used to advertise THE CRYING GAME in its Canadian and U.S. releases. She is holding a smoking gun, although she never fires one in the course of the narrative. Against a black background, the sharp lines of her pale cleavage resemble the blade of a knife. She is THE CRYING GAME's narrative image, a concept Stephen Heath (1981) defines as "a kind of static portrait in which [the film] comes together," and presents itself as a "unity" or "single articulation" (133). For Heath, the narrative image is synonymous with the film's presence,
Posters and publicity stills often constitute a film's narrative image.
Teresa de Lauretis(1984), elaborating on Heath's work, adds that since the narrative process is contingent upon the rehabilitation of the object Woman to the patriarchal order, the narrative image is, to be more precise, the image of Woman herself, of her position within the narrative. De Lauretis explains,
To put it another way, the entire movement of a film's narrative is condensed onto the image of Woman, and in the case of THE CRYING GAME, onto the figure of Jude-as-femme-fatale, as the poster suggests.
Only when Jude appears in her latter incarnation do the visual and narrative registers of the film finally coalesce. That is, once Jody's overblown fears of Jude's omnipotence are visually incarnate and the audience sees Jude as a frightening and dangerous figure, only then does the image (Jude-as-spider-woman) move toward providing the narrative conclusion (the punishment of the bad woman). Up until then, it had been confusing as to how THE CRYING GAME would resolve its two plot trajectories of Fergus' relationship with Dil and his relationship with the IRA.
Yet for all her significance, Jude/ Miranda Richardson receives attention from reviewers only in terms of her first incarnation as "an alluring blonde." The character Dil is the main focus for critical attention paid to THE CRYING GAME. This is not surprising since Jude functions as solace to dominant, heterosexual male fantasies. Her presence as a familiar female type helps balance out the discomfort stirred by Dil's challenge to masculinity.
One could argue that Dil's character is a positive image of transgressive sexuality in mainstream cinema. She is a central, sympathetic, active character in a serious film, which is not pigeonholed as gay. Previously, the few mainstream, queer and cross-dressing characters in film appeared in comedies or horrors, and usually in bit parts. Even more significant, Dil is not punished for her transgression. As Vito Russo (1987:347-49) makes clear in The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, virtually all queer characters in film end up dead, beaten or otherwise absent from the conclusion, yet Dil remains free and transgressive — and she gets to keep her new man.
Importantly, Dil's gender and sexual transgression is represented as "natural" and stable, especially in comparison to Jude's radical shifting through versions of femininity. Dil is constantly feminine because she wears clothing and a hairstyle that fit a single type of femininity. She always appears in a narrow range of urban and contemporary skirts, jackets and shoes, whether at work, at home or at the bar. When Fergus tries to make her look male, his attempt is thoroughly unconvincing — the oversized clothing and ragged haircut make her look like a woman in male drag — which adds to reading her as constantly and truly feminine. This is certainly a reversal from films in which men, like Buffalo Bill in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), are shown as disgusting in female drag and must be annihilated or, like in TOOTSIE (1982), as a source of humor for lighting their "nature" and must he restored to maleness. By the conclusion, Dil returns to her true identity as an attractive woman — despite her biological sex.
Still, one should not he too quick to laud THE CRYING GAME as queer-positive. For example, although during most of the film Dil is accepted, Fergus does respond with revulsion to sexual transgression, when he pukes after discovering the truth about her. Moreover, we refer to Dil as a transvestite, yet we are not certain that this term accurately describes this character since the role conflates a pile of transgressive identities. THE CRYING GAME allows viewers to see Dil as a transvestite which itself includes a range of identities, or as a gay man who happens to cross-dress all the time, or as a transsexual, given that Dil passes as female in all aspects of her life. These are all different kinds of people.
In Siskel's and Ebert's 1993 pre-Oscar special, Gene Siskel argued that Jaye Davidson deserved an Oscar because he had two roles to play: first, a woman, and then, the character Dil. Siskel and other critics have had no trouble maintaining their heterosexist assumptions as they try to squeeze non-dominant identities into male/ female and hetero/ homo binaries. They remain comfortably blind to queer-positive viewers' understanding of the complexity of Dil's identity — that her character is totally imhricated in her sexual and gender identities, and that these identities cannot be conflated.
Queer-positive descriptions of THE CRYING GAME differ considerably from mainstream reviews. We speak of the film as a type of drama here, but several reviews refer to the film as a comedy, suggesting that mainstream film critics must see queers and/or cross-dressing as comedic, at all costs. Comedy is a cornerstone of hegemonic strategies to trivialize, and therefore, defuse the threat of Otherness. As well, these reviewers use words like "hidden bomb," "mind-blowing," "bizarre," "sexual extremism" and "perverse" to refer to Dil. Quite clearly these critics use a different reading strategy than those who see the film as breaking ground for transgressive sexuality in mainstream cinema. Even more telling, director Neil Jordan describes Dil as "a beautiful creature" and the film as having "strange and dark things underneath," while the producer Stephen Wooley explains that he makes "critical films showing the worm at the apple's core."
The attitudes of mainstream critics, as well as the filmmakers, suggest that THE CRYING GAME does not challenge dominant straight ideas of gays and transvestites because queerness only functions as spice and not as an accepted part of the film. Hence, Neil Jordan can describe his search for the perfect actor to play Dil as "[sending] my casting people out into the night and onto the street." And the press kit can see the world of Dil as "seedy contemporary London," as "the suffocating subterranean underbelly of the capital's bright lights…" What this illustrates is that Dil is not read as a given but rather as a hidden "dark" secret, lurking somewhere beneath London's "seedy" underbelly.
Reviewers comfortably use words like "savor," "overripe" and "delicious," and they deploy circus metaphors, such as "high-wire act" and "tight-rope walk," which demonstrate their view of Dil as a bizarre Other for the entertainment of or consumption by "normal" viewers. This is made apparent in the press kit that was handed out to reviewers and journalists at screenings of the film. The kit includes a request from the director and the producer, asking that writers "do not reveal…the exact nature of the character Dil's sex" in order to "maintain this key element of surprise and revelation for the initial audience's pleasure." Carla Hall of The Washington Post boasted that "film critics…have kept mum as if initiated into a cult." The question is: Why should anyone be so
Moreover Dil's "nature" is kept secret within the film because there is virtually no sign of her queerness until she takes her clothes off. This functions to set her up as the absolute Other — and the only real sexual rebel in the film. The bartender at the Metro serves drinks and general patter in a bar that looks and acts remarkably like a trendy straight bar, Dil's jealous boyfriend Dave behaves like any straight asshole and is never shown as sexually active with Dil, and Jody dies before he could do anything actively offensive to delicate heterosexist sensibilities.
In short, one cannot call THE CRYING GAME progressive simply because it allows a central queer character to live transgressively to the end, when the film also allows assumptions that marginalize queerness to remain intact. As Teresa de Lauretis (1990:224) puts it,
Queer viewers are renowned for the ability to read more into films than the mainstream will allow. So it is no great feat to incorporate enough suggestions that can fertilize active, hungry imaginations to produce an empowered queer reading of THE CRYING GAME. It is this segment of the audience who is progressive, not the film they watched.
THE CRYING GAME is not the first time that Neil Jordan has used Otherness to spice up the lives of straight white men. MONA LISA (1996) features a black, lesbian prostitute as foil for the protagonist's fantasies. In both films, not just queerness but blackness as well functions as "seasoning" (as Jordan's reference to "strange and dark things" implies). Of course, the use of "spice" or "flavoring" is a common feature of noir-influenced films. The hero, usually a "colorless characterization" of a white, heterosexual male (Richard Dyer cites Dana Andrews and Glenn Ford as examples, and considers characters played by Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchtum as more macho exceptions), stumbles into a milieu that is charged with decadence and perversion, and inhabited by freaks and criminals.
Against this type of backdrop, marked as it is as deviant and feminized, the male hero appears as "normal" and properly masculine (Dyer 1978:91-2). Fergus in THE CRYING GAME exemplifies this type of film noir hero. As Jude mockingly describes him, he is a "Mr. Nobody," boring, inactive and alienated. Fergus wanders into an urban landscape where gender and sexual identities are not what they seem (to his "normal" perspective), where an atmosphere of the unknown and the forbidden prevails, and ultimately seduces him.
What is particularly offensive about Jordan's brand of so-called postmodern film noir is that blackness and queerness now function as that deviancy or charge against which the straight, white, male hero is defined as normal. Race, as a sign combined with queerness, exponentially increases the enigmatic and exotic quality of Dil's character, and most importantly, her ability to serve the fantasies of white men. Blackness as sign carries meanings of wildness and hypersexuality that add up to sexual availability without responsibility, according to white patriarchal myths. As well, blackness distances both Dil and Jody from the presumed white, male viewers. Consequently, these characters are not as big a challenge to "normal" viewers' sense of identity. It is not one of "us" who is queer because only the black people are sexually different.
The same reviewers whose word choice reflects their discomfort with queer sexuality also make claims that THE CRYING GAME has "no precedent for the way it goes on to explore politics, race, and sex" and that Jordan "celebrates a loving humanity triumphant over nationality and race and death — and other barriers." Their ease with the film's consideration of race and politics belies THE CRYING GAME's own eliding of difficult issues. The film provides no complex, committed exploration of politics or systemic racism.
In fact, it displaces the problem of racism onto the Irish and women. Jody makes the erroneous statement that Ireland is "the one place in the world where they call you nigger to your face." And Jude refers derogatorily to Dil as the "wee Black chick," which serves to further characterize Jude as the villain. We would go so far as to say that, in order to maintain a progressive reading of THE CRYING GAME, one must adopt a "United Colors of Benetton" approach, where race is not supposed to matterexcept to racists like Jude who do notice difference — because, after all, we're just people. Jody and Dil "just happen to be black," a rationale which makes white mainstream critics and audiences comfortable because they don't have to think about the politics of race or feel guilty for reaping the benefits of white privilege. But of course, race really does matter in THE CRYING GAME since Jody's and Dil's blackness is necessary for Fergus' pleasure and white viewers' comfort.
After considering the above points, one begins to wonder how progressive THE CRYING GAME's representation and use of transgressive sexuality is. Initially this article described Dil as sympathetic, but for whom? Even if one does not mind misogyny as a convenient plot device, one should wonder if Dil's phallic possession nets her better treatment than other women. She serves exactly the same function that Luce Irigaray (1985:171) describes for women in patriarchal language and social interaction: Dil is an object to facilitate "hom(m)osexual exchange." Irigaray coined this term to describe how patriarchal interaction simultaneously denies women subjectivity and suppresses male homosexuality. Women function as Other so that men can talk about themselves without having to actually talk about themselves, without having to risk intimacy. At the same time, women serve as a buffer so that direct male-male exchange is prevented and thus homoerotic contact is suppressed. Men swap stories of sex with women or men go out cruising together, but real men never reveal anything about themselves, and they presumably never have sex with each other.
We would argue that Dil's penis does not let her stay a subject interacting with Fergus. Instead, her feminine image relegates her to the object that facilitates Jody's and Fergus' patriarchally forbidden love affair. When Fergus tries to disguise Dil, he chooses Jody's clothes — not just any old thing but the meaning-loaded cricket outfit: the same outfit that Jody wears when he appears bathed in an angelic, golden glow in Fergus' dreams; the same outfit that causes Fergus to soak his sheets in sweat. Reviewers neglect to mention these details. Despite the attention given Dil as a transgressive figure, this suggests to us that the sight of two men — biologically and in terms of identity — falling in love might be too frightening to make this film a mainstream success — for suddenly delicious spice would become hard facts. Jody can remain a flavor as long as Fergus does no more than help him pee, and as long as Fergus redirects his homoerotic desire to a feminine image — Dil.
Jody's death conveniently lets the passive Fergus avoid making any decision about his homoerotic attraction. But it does not remove Jody from the plot. His repressed presence is acknowledged enough to charge the film with the threat of two real men's sexuality but not enough to disturb the comfy consciousness of dominant audiences. Jody can still be seen as Fergus' buddy even if Fergus constantly asks Dil about him, dreams (sweatily) of him, and tries to change Dil into him. Dil, too, becomes aware of Fergus' fascination with Jody. Most of their conversations during their courtship center around the dead man, even during their one sexual encounter. Here, Fergus expresses interest in the sexual activity of Jody and asks Dil, "Did you do that to him?" She replies, "You want to know how I kissed him…," and proceeds to perform fellatio. Eventually Fergus' numerous questions about Dil's deceased lover prompt her to inquire, "Is this an obsession of yours?"
Fergus' interest in Dil, as well as his dreams about Jody, could be motivated by guilt for the soldier's death, but that is far too simple and convenient an answer which avoids discussion of homoerotic desire. If guilt is the only emotion in Fergus' subconscious, then why dream of a mythical Jody — Jody in clothing and in an activity that Fergus never actually saw? He dreams of Jody in his cricket gear at the very moment when Dil gives him a blow-job. The visual meaning of a romantic Jody combined with Fergus' and Dil's sexual act produces a definitely erotic reading — a reading which is supported by Dil's use of the word "obsession" later.
Dil may achieve centrality for transvestites in cinema but that achievement is deceptive. She has replaced the position of Woman. Dil does not carry over a man's rights to a role that transgresses the boundaries that support patriarchal rights, in other words, Dil has no more power than any woman. She is but a '90s version of the good woman or redeemer who acts to help integrate the male film noir hero into his environment and gain greater self-knowledge (Place 42). Today, in contrast to the 40s version, actual women are no longer good enough for even this passive and harmless secondary role.
At the film's conclusion, Fergus repeats a parable that Jody had told him when the soldier had tried to help the Irishman understand his "nature" as a kind man. At the time, Fergus did not understand, but once he achieves the love of a good woman, he can, An essential part of Fergus' lesson, moreover, is that he divest himself of the bad woman, Jude. The film noir hero's success is contingent upon his ability to extricate himself from the manipulations of the scheming sexual woman (Kaplan 1978:3). Dil's bitchy competition with and murder of Jude help place Fergus well onto the path of redemption.
Furthermore, Dil does not represent a significant change in the position of queers in film and in dispelling homophobia. She distracts from film noir's repressed homosexuality and helps shore up the all-male universe that has historically characterized this type of thriller. "In such films," says Krutnick, "the men seem much more at ease in the company of other men (63). The homosexual subtext that emerges in these films, though ultimately contained, is contingent upon dread of heterosexual encumberment, specifically, domestication within the bounds of the patriarchal family. Unfortunately, this manifests itself in a hatred of women; male homosexuality and misogyny become part and parcel of the same thing in the film noir thriller.
Jody's and Fergus' relationship defines the parameters of THE CRYING GAME's particular kind of male universe. The two men form their bond with each other in the most typically masculine way: they talk about sports.
But not any sport. The each prefer a nationally specific game: Fergus argues for the Irish favorite hurling while Jody touts the merits of English cricket. Jody, however, speaks in the past tense because his race and his class ended his acceptability as a cricket player once he moved to England from Antigua. The choice of these games is significant because each is representative of a national identity and reinforces other differences between the two men that distracts from their differences in race. Jody's black masculinity would be too threatening if that were all that attracted Fergus. Cricket as a sign works like Dil's ambiguous gender to provide distractions from blackness and still allow race to function as a "spice."
The image of Jody in Fergus' dreams, an image Fergus never saw in actuality but only produces in fantasy, sums up the all-male world of this film. Jody's soft, white cricket clothes are heavily drenched in boyhood nostalgia and all the peaceful signs of a purer, simpler time, a time before feminism and gay identity, and a time when white colonialism was at its height. In Fergus' dream, Jody is isolated: Jody has no context or surroundings, only his clothes, his cricket moves and his smile. Jody is a lovely vision of male homoerotic desire — more overtly homoerotic than Dil, who passes as female and visually works as the "safe" gender opposite of Fergus (even after the slower members of the audience have figured her out).
Jody, however, is just as invisible to dominant viewers a: any other potentially subversive image. And he is just as dead as any queer character listed in Vito Russo's necrology. He is classically repressed, relegated to the dreams of the main character, never mentioned in mainstream critical responses, and only allowed a physical presence in the second half of the film when Fergus transforms Dil into his fantasy of Jody — the image Dil carries when she punishes Jude for using her "tits and ass" to lure Jody.
Dil plays the woman's role in this boyhood world of games. She is not one of the active men, one of the guys on the team. For added emphasis, her unnaturalness in Jody's cricket clothes proves this because they are too big and obviously do not suit her. Instead, she is one of the girls who facilitates male bonding. As in traditional war movies, Jody shows his new buddy Fergus a photo of his one true gal waiting back home. Dil serves as the buffer between male homoerotic desire: Jody and Fergus can talk about sex and love without having to talk about themselves, and Fergus can sublimate his impossible desire for Jody by pursuing Dil.
A familiar figure in heterosexist representations, Dil's new addition to the role of good woman simply allows Fergus an excuse to dress her up as the man of his dreams. The film displaces male homoeroticism via the patriarchal hom(m)osexual exchange and in no way actually challenges it, even though a transvestite is substituted for Woman. In fact, this substitution leads to new possibilities: how to do without any women, thereby eliminating the nagging risk that is posed by their presence as objects of exchange.
Women are doubly erased from THE CRYING GAME: Dil as biological male functions as a non-castrating image of Woman. She is innocuous compared to the threat posed to the male characters by Jude's destructive sexual power and duplicitous femininity. As the captive Jody says to Fergus at the IRA hideout, "There's only one kind of woman you can trust." It is not until later in the film that Jody's statement gains its full import, when it is revealed that Dil, as the only one kind of woman one can trust, is biologically speaking a man. Oil as Woman-with-a-phallus acts as a "sugar-free" substitute for Jude the phallic woman. The male characters can have all the sweetness of the image Woman but without the calories — the dangers of female sexuality. Dil can dress as a sexually alluring woman and sing torch songs like her predecessor Gilda (Rita Hayworth) in the classic noir film of the same name (1946). But she is in no way an object of fear, hatred or suspicion for the men in the film. But even as an image of Woman, Dil is erased, for she functions merely as a conduit through which the repressed love affair between two men can be enacted at a latent level. Just where are the women in this film?
A clue to women's whereabouts can be found, ironically, in a more detailed consideration of the construction of masculinity in film noir, In In A Lonely Place: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity (1991), Frank Krutnick argues that 1940s Hollywood film noir is symptomatic of post-war U.S. society's crisis in the cultural regimentation of masculinity. "[S]habby, defeatist and alienated" film noir heroes indicate a problematic relation to the culture's representation of the ideal, traditional masculine hero as aggressive, dynamic and tough (90). The prevalence of traumatized males in these films, says Krutnick, is a sign of
"the disjunction between, on the one hand, the contemporary representational possibilities of masculine self-image and, on the other, the traditional cultural codification of masculine identity" (91).
In other words, since the post-war period, the image "Man" has become a difficult one for contemporary men to live up to. For this reason Krutnick refers to the film noir as the "paranoid man's film," melodrama concerned with "the problems besetting masculine identity and meaning" (131).
Fergus in THE CRYING GAME functions as a contemporary re-working of the film noir hero. He speaks about Western, patriarchal concerns regarding masculinity in the '90s. When we first encounter him, he is a cynical, cold IRA tough who has no problem in kidnapping and abusing Jody. Gradually, via Jody's "seduction" of him, Fergus begins to reveal his true "nature," as a kind, sympathetic, gentle man. Judy recognizes these aspects of Fergus, but the captive is run over by a British military convoy before his hypothesis about Fergus can be tested out. In the meantime, however, Fergus undergoes a profound identity crisis, plunging him into a world of moral confusion. He goes to London to escape his former life as an IRA member and becomes Jimmy, a construction worker, a "Mr. Nobody" who doesn't even mind if people believe he is Scottish.
Dil acts as the agent through which Fergus can come to an understanding of himself, of his true "nature" as a kind, sensitive, feminine man. Indeed, the film eliminates the threat of female power not only through the annihilation of Jude but more complexly through the male incorporation of femininity. With his possession of male femininity, Fergus is an example of the new man for the 90s. His femininity is given, not us a sign of deviancy, but as a trait which is natural to men. Moreover, it should not he denied: only when Fergus denies this side of himself is he unhappy, confused and lost. Similarly, only when Dil dons masculine attire is she unstable and unpredictable. As a woman, however, she is natural, loyal and steady. Male femininity is solid and reliable because beneath that feminine masquerade lies the authority of the phallus.
But femininity, when it is in the employ of women, is destructive, dangerous and duplicitous, as our discussion of Jude, the only woman in the film, indicates. She is paradoxically punished for her "nature" on two counts, both for violating it and for being true to it. That is, Jude is penalized, on the one hand, for possessing an unnatural phallic power, as signified by her gun, and on the other, for embodying feminine traits such as duplicity and narcissism. In other words, both masculinity and femininity are bad in women. Caught in this Catch-22 it becomes apparent that, in fact, it is in the very "nature" of women to be bad. As Jody comments to Fergus,
Women are the locus of narrative trouble (with the exception of a woman like Dil). Jude's murder is used to restore the narrative to equilibrium, with human nature functioning as the ahistorical moral authority of the world of the film. The IRA, like blackness, is reduced to mere spice, a sexy charge that livens up our hero's search for moral certitude. Moreover, Jody, as a black British soldier, further severs social and historical connections because a black man, originally from Antigua, can hardly function as a representative of British imperialism, the IRA's enemy, when he too is a colonized subject.
Politics in THE CRYING GAME are not about groups or social movements or history but about personal identity in the bourgeois individualistic sense. The IRA soldier Fergus divests his Irish national identity as part of his personal quest for self-knowledge. The implication is that only cruel, amoral individuals (by inference this includes all women), who have no respect for human nature can be members of radical groups like the IRA. Those like Fergus recognize that in the end politics, power and cultural oppression don't matter. Especially when killing Jude-as-spider-woman allows one to skirt (pun intended) difficult questions concerning British and Northern Irish antagonisms.
Mainstream reviews of THE CRYING GAME have caught onto the film's "subversive" portrayal of masculine identity. In an article in the New York Times Magazine which discusses the new man in contemporary cinema, THE CRYING GAME is hailed as touching "anti-macho chords" since it features a hero who "refuses to fire his gun." Moreover, "the two other sympathetic male characters" in this film, the writer assures us, also "enjoy blurred sexual identities." This prompts the reviewer to conclude that THE CRYING GAME poses a challenge to dominant sexist stereotypes of gender because,
In Feminism without Women: Culture and Criticism in a "Postfeminist" Age (1991), Tania Modleski makes the significant point that the contemporary crisis in male subjectivity that is evidenced in recent films must he considered in terms of
These films depict male femininity as progressive, natural, non-sexist, and good, while women, and especially masculine women, are either completely absent or portrayed as aberrant. Men's rejection of rigidly demarcated gender roles, which has been a goal of feminism, can only come in these films at the expense of women. The emancipation of women is forgotten. What we have, to use Modleski's phrase, is a "feminism without women."
Dil's murder of Jude proves that Dil is the perfect "postfeminist" solution, and Fergus as the new man is the film noir hero) for the 90s. When he gets in touch with his feminine side, he can alleviate the trauma of his identity crisis (one that feminism probably had a hand in facilitating, given the film's historical context). Now that men like Dil and Feigns can be feminine, we no longer need feminism to challenge gender stereotypes. The implication is that men not only make better women, as they clearly do in THE CRYING GAME, but that they probably make better feminists as well, since they are more skilled at defying gender stereotypes.
Although we have investigated THE CRYING GAME as a thriller which borrows from film noir, it is not our intention to try to lit the film into a particular genre. Rather, we wished to show THE CRYING GAME's strong ideological associations with film noir as a way of examining the ways in which the film reworks and revives very particular noir codes and themes to speak about our contemporary, so-called "postfemmist" culture. Placing the film within its contemporary social context, THE CRYING GAME, we argue, represents a backlash response to feminism since the challenge that feminism poses to masculine identity is ultimately defused through incorporation (Modleski 10), and this at the expense of the one woman in the film. THE CRYING GAME's potent combination of male homoeroticism and male appropriation of femininity eliminates the threat to masculinity that is posed by Jude's female sexual power (cf. Modieski 82).
This film comes at a critical time when women's reproductive rights are being threatened, employment equity programs are being attacked, and the mainstream is proclaiming that feminism is dead. We situate THE CRYING GAME within other backlash representations that we have seen in the mainstream media since the late 80s, including the preponderance of U.S. TV sitcoms featuring single-father families (such as MY TWO DADS, FULL HOUSE, and BLOSSOM), and especially, the emergence of the female/ career-woman stalker in films such as FATAL ATTRACTION (1987), BASIC INSTINCT (1992) and THE TEMP (1993). All the attention on Dil's transgressive sexuality distracts from this film's virulent misogyny and racism, and its hegemonic containment of male homoerotic desire. After a few screenings, we resented this film for its insidious division of queers from feminists and from people of color. Dil may be an unparalleled image of transgressive sexuality within mainstream cinema but is the price of admission worth it?
We wish to thank Leila Armstrong, Lynne Hissey, Lianne McLarty and Michele Valiquette or their comments on an earlier draft.
1. See David Ansen, "Very Dangerous Liaisons," in Newsweek (Nov. 30, 1992), p. 80; David Denhy's review of The Crying Game, in New York (Dec. 7, 1992), p. 64; and Peter Travers' review, in Rolling Stone (Nov. 26, 1992), p. 80.
2. Kitty Bowe Hearty, 'London is Burning," in Premiere (Dec. 1992), p. 36; Brian D. Johnson's review, in Maclean's (Dec. 14, 1992), p. 54; Donald Lyons, "Bloody Miracle," in Film Comment 28:6 (1992), p. 42; plus the press kit for the film.
3. See Johnson specifically, but also Denby, who makes mention of the IRA "using a good-looking blonde as lure for a black British soldier"; and Lyons, who refers to Jude as the "blonde pick-up" for a "black Brit soldier." Jude is also referred to as an "IRA seductress" by Michael Walsh in The Province ("Crying Game has more than one sting in its tale," Dec. 27, 1992), p. C10); as a "deranged IRA seductress" by Michael U. Reid in the Times-Colonist ("Emotional Irish thriller deftly observes games people play," Jan. 8, 1993); and as "a tarty Irish woman, who turns out to be a lure for the IRA" by Julie Salamon in the Wall Street Journal ("Film: Neil Jordan Works His Magic," Dec. 10, 1992).
4. We wish to acknowledge the anthology Women in Film Noir, edited by B. Ann Kaplan, as an invaluable resource in helping us to define the role of the femme fatale.
5. This description of Jude's final incarnation, interestingly enough, appeared in the press kit for THE CRYING GAME.
6. The name "Jude" has immediate negative connotations due to its similarity to the name "Judas,"
7. The text for the poster reads "THE CRYING GAME…Sex. Murder. Betrayal…nothing is what it seems to be…play it at your own risk."
8. As well, the synopsis in the press kit for THE CRYING GAME insists on referring to Jude as a blonde, even after her hair color has changed during her femme fatale incarnation. She is referred to as "a blonde in a brown wig," even though there is nothing in the film to suggest she is wearing a wig.
9. See Ansen, Denby and Travers. In an interview with Damian Inwood of The Province, director-writer Jordan called the film "a kind of unrequited love story…[which) ends in a comedy, in a kind of resolution" ("CRYING GAME builds on MONA LISA," Dec. 24, 1992).
10. Johnson — "hidden bomb;" Bowe Hearty — "mindblowing;" Rick Groen, "Passport to the borders of the mind," in The Globe and Mail (Dec. 4, 1992) — "bizarre;" Walsh — "sexual extremism;" Ansell and Denby — "perverse."
11. John Armstrong, "A far cry from the usual Hollywood game," in The Vancouver Sun (Dec. 24, 1992), p. E4.
12. Linda Joffe, "How THE CRYING GAME Was Made," in The Christian Science Monitor (March 26, 1993), p. 12.
13. Louis B. Hobson, "CRYING GAME director sheds tears of joy," in The Calgary Sun (Jan. 14, 993).
14. In addition, Denby refers to the atmosphere of the bar that Dil hangs out in as "squalid but voluptuous."
15. Lyons — "savor;" Joseph Hooper, review in Esquire (Dec. 1992), p.42 — "overripe;" Ansen — "delicious;"Travers — "highwire act; Ansen — "tightrope walk."
16. In one of the few articles we found that criticized THE CRYING GAME, Caryn James of The New York Times described it as "a fascinating example of how a smart, small film can get a huge amount of mileage out of a gimmick [the secrecy over Dil's identity)." She hails the film's marketing as more brilliant than the film itself (in "THE CRYING GAME Wins at Gimmickry," Jan. 31, 1993). As a further side note to this, Miramax Films, distributors of THE CRYING GAME, received the accolade of "best film marketing campaign" from the Film Information Council (Tire Vancouver Sun, Feb. 24, 1993).
17. Carla Hall, "It's A Crying Shame! Media with wrong attitude try to spoil nominee's secret," reprinted in The Vancouver Sun (Feb. 19, 1993), p. C6, courtesy of The Washington Post.
18. bell hooks develops the concept of race functioning as "spice" or "seasoning" for white mainstream culture in Black Looks.
19. Bowe Hearty. As well, Johnson notes that "Jordan explores issues of racial and sexual identity…his themes of loyalty and compassion acquire a deeper, political resonance." And in the press kit for the film, Jordan is quoted as saying that THE CRYING GAME "deals with race and sexuality, and love, but it goes much deeper."
20. Lyons. Other reviewers make similar points: for example, Green explains that the film "[maps) out a state of mind…that levels the barriers of politics, nationality, of race, of religion, of gender itself;" Reid states that the film "strips away the beliefs of several characters whose race, color, political stripes and sexuality may differ, but whose vulnerabilities and basic needs as humans are similar;" and Travers writes, "For all the characters, hiding behind race, sex and politics is no longer possible."
21. We should note that our discussion of the film's reception is mainly concerned with Canada and the United States. We are aware that THE CRYING GAME had a different reception in Great Britain, where it did not do as well at the box office, because of its IRA content. Wolf Schneider of The Telegraph-Journal reports that marketing the film in England was more difficult than in the United States, He quotes Jordan as saying,
Jordan is quoted by Hobson on the same issue:
In Maclean's, actor Stephen Rea explains,
22. While we do not wish to indulge in auteur theory, it is nevertheless interesting to note that Jordan himself recognizes the homoerotic undercurrent in Fergus' and Jody's relationship. In an interview by John Levesque of The Hamilton Spectator ("Director Neil Jordan shows his brilliance in THE CRYING GAME," Dec. 20, 1992), Jordan stated:
Mark Harris of Entertainment Weekly quotes Jordon as saying,
23. Denby claims that this scene "sends a shiver through the audience."
24. In the parable, the frog offers to swim the scorpion piggyback across the river to safety, if the scorpion in turn promises not to sting him. The promise is made, but the scorpion stings the frog in midstream, even though it means his own drowning because it is in his nature. The figuring of "nature" and its relation to moral authority in the film is a concern to which we will return later in the discussion.
25. In his review, Reid wrote, "Jordan shatters stereotypes." As well, the press kit states that the "main characters do not fit to Hollywood stereotypes" because "Jody is a black British soldier, who exposes his vulnerability…Fergus is a terrorist with a great sense of humanity," and Jude is "an IRA activist with chameleon talents [who] exploits her masculine and feminine traits to further the cause." As indicated in note 22, Jordan sees the film as challenging "macho intentions."
26. Frank Rich, "Clintonian Cinema," in The New York Times Magazine (Mar. 21, 1993), p.76
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