Critical dialogue—
Chinatown’s sexism

by Barbara Halpern Martineau

from Jump Cut, no. 4, 1974, p. 24
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1974, 2004

This is an angry letter about the two reviews of CHINATOWN which appeared in your third issue. I try to avoid writing angry letters because they take so much energy which I would rather spend writing positive constructive criticism, especially of films by women, but I think Jump Cut is a good forum to express anger transformed into constructive criticism.

The key to my anger about the two CHINATOWN reviews can be seen in two casual phrases: James Kavanagh remarks,

“The movie brings us, with Gittes, to the unsettling realization that we can't always tell what’s going on, even in our comfortable middle class womb; it forces us to resign ourselves to our petty insignificance, and follow a strategy for survival which directs that we do ‘as little as possible.’”

And Murray Sperber makes it perfectly clear:

“Polanski gets us to identify with J. J. Gittes.”

Well just who is that “us” that Kavanagh and Sperber are so relaxed about being? For Sperber it seems to be anyone who can afford the price of admission, hence a middle and upper class “us.” (And, it would seem, a masochistic “us” who relish the intricacies of the way “our” hopelessness is depicted.) For Kavanagh “us” clearly doesn't include the inhabitants of Chinatown, which he sees as “the other place, a place outside of the universe of bourgeois discourse.” Kavanagh approves of the film’s strategy in not pretending to “capture the reality of poverty and oppression.” But he doesn't seem aware of the other other whose oppression the film does pretend to capture, but only to exploit it, namely that old reliable other whose oppression Simone de Beauvoir described in The Second Sex, namely us. Meaning us women, (chuckle) why, honey, how, do you expect us to identify with J.J. Gittes? On the other hand, do you expect us to identify with the bloody corpse of Evelyn Mulwray, whose death, according to both reviewers, stands for any number of social horrors except the pervasive oppression of women by men?

Of the two reviews, I find Kavanagh’s (the cover story) more useful and intelligent, and therefore more interesting to attack. Sperber seems lost between his obvious relish of the film’s sensationalism and his guilt and subsequent desire to show how politically unacceptable the film is. Although he has minor insights into Gittes’ total inability to understand the women Gittes encounters, his stance is made clear to me when he speaks of the “picture of the woman being penetrated from the rear—a sexist image Polanski uses to say, in this world, everyone takes it in the ass.” Well, maybe, but that just doesn't gloss over the fact that it’s a woman taking it in the ass and, as usual, having even her specific oppression denied her by the sexist language which melts her into the everyone she isn't. Enough for Sperber.

Kavanagh is concerned to show the merits of the film as bourgeois art, and then to show the limitations of bourgeois art—a fair enough proposition. But he doesn't analyze the film’s obvious and extremely oppressive depiction of patriarchy to discover whether that depiction is consciously intended by Polanski or simply imbedded in the film as an aspect of Polanski’s own patriarchal attitudes. Because of this omission, Kavanagh’s discussion simply extends the patriarchy one level further. This is particularly ironic when he introduces the idea of Chinatown as the other place, and then shows how, instead of trying to deal with the concept of the ghetto as such, Polanski simply uses it as a background for the film’s final violence.

Throughout this passage, and in the article as a whole, Kavanagh studiously avoids letting us know that the victim of the final violence is a woman. The blood and horror are abstract neutralities—once more the woman is deprived even of the recognition of her specific oppression. And the vision of J.J. Gittes as the helpless but well-meaning petit bourgeois completely overlooks the fact that it was his overweening determination to control the film’s denouement, to set himself up as an opponent of Cross rather than simply to help Evelyn to quietly escape, that leads to the spilling of all that female blood. Gittes’ role could be studied in terms of his relationship with Evelyn, a relationship in which he refuses to trust her and at the same time demands that she trust him, thereby putting her life on the line. If this is looked at, then a strong ambivalence is brought into his role as blundering crusader against evil. He is also, in a very direct way, imitating the very evil he opposes—as in all wars the antagonists resemble each other and those who suffer most are the noncombatants, the women and children.

If this analysis is brought to bear on the film, its relation to THE MALTESE FALCON, mentioned as a piece of trivia by Sperber, becomes important. Huston’s treatment of Bogart as he finally betrays Mary Astor, a vision I find ambivalent and distanced, can be compared with Polanski’s handling of Gittes as Evelyn Mulwray’s unwitting destroyer. Then also, the element of plot which Sperber sees as evidence of Gittes’ “romanticism,” the fact that he tells Evelyn how once, in Chinatown, he ended up by hurting a girl he was trying to help, becomes part of a pattern which shows Gittes’ relations to women as constantly destructive. Neither review even mentions the other death of a woman in the film, but that is also linked to Gittes. It happens when the woman who posed as Mulwray’s wife is murdered shortly after giving Gittes information which he casually accepts without inquiring as to the possible consequences for her.

With all this left out of both talkative reviews, it’s not surprising that Polanski’s little sexist jokes don't come up for comment, such as the story Gittes tells in such an out-of-character fashion just at the moment when Gittes uses the house of a former client as an escape route. That’s when we see the woman shown in the film’s first sequence as being fucked in the ass, but now she’s been beaten in the face by her husband as punishment for letting that happen. So she’s settled down to cooking and taking care of the kids and not asking questions. That’s the role Gittes wants to impose on Evelyn Mulwray, but lacking the straightforwardness of working-class machismo, he fumbles and gets her killed instead.

I agree with Kavanagh when he says that bourgeois art at its best

“discerns some of the more complex contradictions in bourgeois social life, realizing that there are ‘other’ kinds of oppression even more frightening than those suffered by the male middle class, seeing some connection among different kinds of oppression, and putting all this in relation to capitalism in a way that avoids creating illusory heroes, illusory victims, or illusory escapes.”

But then it is the job of responsible criticism to examine that presentation as fully as possible, which means not ignoring the fact that while the male star gets a slit nose, the female star gets shot through the eye.