Ragtime: the horror of
growing up female

by Serafina Kent Bathrick

from Jump Cut, no. 14, 1977, pp. 9-10
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1977, 2004

From its beginnings, classical Hollywood cinema has relied on and reinforced the “natural” characteristics of women (reproductive or destructive) in order to motivate and propel its closed narrative structures. Certain coded behavior on screen could represent a woman as ideal mother or as lustful vamp. If she tells bedtime stories to children, she'll never be seen smoking cigarettes in her negligee. However, Hayes Codes and culture industry politics often permitted a fallen woman to die—so that her last minute suicide allowed for the rescue of her little son (THREE ON A MATCH, 1932). Or an innately possessive nurse could finally be treated for her murderous tendencies after collapsing, suffering, and surrendering to a forgiving husband and a psychiatric ward full of experts (POSSESSED, 1947).

Until recently, with the advent of the disaster film, in which “Mother Nature” herself wipes out whole cities, the individual woman has mostly been spared the capacity for large-scale destruction. But now, in the age of the crazily mixed genre film, where confused narratives tell us that humans are decadent, technology doesn't work, and nature has been ravished, there emerge whole new possibilities for ways to explain the rationalization of life and the destruction of community—again in terms of the nature of women. As Carrie White comes of age, she discovers that “she’s got the power.” With earth, air, fire, and water at her command, she annihilates a generation of all-American teenagers.

From the outset of CARRIE, Brian de Palma’s latest film, the telekinetic abilities of the central character are intimately connected to her new-found physiological functions. She discovers her menstrual blood and her unnatural powers begin. The film is divided into two halves that ultimately reinforce the biologism that is used to explain Carrie’s destructive nature. First, her self-discovery brings the entire high school to know of her private ignorance and fear. This culminates with the central, most public incident (the senior prom), in which her precarious self-confidence is again shattered by the bloody revenge of her classmates. Thus, the second half of the film simply traces Carrie’s rampage, in which her crazed mind and body join to produce the complete destruction of her community. This simple narrative gives film audiences new and not so new ways to consider the reification of women through their physical attributes. Sociopolitical contradictions can still be covered with the ritualized esthetic of female biology.

It is ironic and fitting that de Palma can exploit the new openness with which the media have attempted to discuss and demystify women’s sexuality. His film style reveals the dedicated relish with which he encounters and twists the subject—at his most flamboyant he can weave fear and self-hate into a spectacle of female destruction. There is an urgency in his desire to prove the impossibility of community among women.

In order to examine the implications of de Palma’s aesthetic and his use of the naturally destructive woman, it is important to look closely at exactly how he averts any analysis of the social causes for the narrative development of the film. From the outset, the image of blood plays on our senses, creating the kinds of fears of women which prevail in most pre-industrial cultures. The witch-healer in Medieval Europe was a triple threat to Church and State. Contemporary analyses have pointed out the significance of her function, along with its threat to the social order.

“She appeared to be part of an organized underground of peasant women. And she was a healer whose practice was based in empirical study. In the face of the repressive fatalism of Christianity, she held out the hope of change in this world.”(1)

De Palma exploits the position of women in this tradition of healers and rebels. By systematically witch hunting for social wrongs through the sexualizing of women’s nature and bodily functions, he upholds and contributes to the kind of scapegoating that keeps capitalist culture in the service of the state. Every woman in CARRIE is understood entirely in terms of her sexual frustration or potency. Carrie’s mother and teacher are middle-aged loners—one a neurotic fundamentalist, the other a lonely romantic. For both women the focus on prom night reinforces de Palma’s central icon. Mrs. White cannot consider the occasion anything but an orgy, while Miss Collins recalls her own prom as a moment of adolescent innocence. Carrie’s two peers represent a similar polarity—sweet Sue is a well-meaning monogamist and Chris a spoiled nymphomaniac. For prom night, they both get favors and affirmation from their boyfriends. Carrie herself is limited and defined by this repellent culture of women, but she tops them all in her capacity to destroy and be destroyed.

In recent studies on the history of menstruation, fears connected with witch women are associated with the belief that at the time of their monthly periods, women are their most self-aware, most powerful, and most destructive. In many cultures the menstruating woman threatens male virility, contaminates crops or poisons the food she cooks. Thus her reproductive powers are linked to destructive ones:

“Menstrual blood, the outward sign of her duality, could be her weapon to annihilate the society she was responsible for preserving.”(2)

De Palma’s career as film director suggests his own desire to reconcile or flatten this dangerous dualism. In SISTERS, the surviving Siamese twin takes on the personality of her homicidal “other half” who had died during their surgical separation. In a more recent bomb by de Palma, OBSESSION (1976), his Hitchcock homagery thinly coats the same concern with a woman whose posthumous mystique gives proof of her duplicitous nature. This time she leaves her double, a daughter, behind to do the necessary damage. In CARRIE the same director further reveals his bewildered fascination with female power. As he described it in his earlier films, he once again denies the operation of class or institutional force by focusing on the biological determinism of women.

To look closely at de Palma’s style—its often fatuous display of filtered images, overstuffed frames, and floating cameras—is to understand further the modes by which he has developed his own brand of sexism. Though the film opens with a brief pre-credit scene, shot from high angle to show the mechanics of a girl’s volleyball game, there is neither the director’s flamboyance nor any of the real interest in this activity to tell us anything about high school, gym classes, or girls as athletes. The camera quickly locates Carrie and cranes down towards her fumbling figure in the corner, and, as the game ends with her miss, a surge of angry schoolmates run past her towards the gym, calling to the gawky girl: “You eat shit.”

The credits begin with a cut to another more delightful stage in post-game ritual. Coyly hidden behind the words and obtrusively blurred by filtered lenses, the camera drifts into the girl’s locker room like a male fantasy. It tracks slowly amidst their steamy bodies as they proliferate, repeating each other’s gestures and turns, bending and lifting to dress their nude bodies. The process is prolonged by slow motion, the better to see them, the better to expose their narcissism. Again, de Palma’s camera leaves the group to find Carrie alone in the shower: last because of her modesty, or because she’s the most self-adoring of them all? There is a cut to a close up of her upturned face with the shower nozzle spraying her, eyes closed, succumbing to that pleasure. Surely the sequence recalls Marion’s shower in PSYCHO. Is the intent to prepare us for a wound, a rush of blood? De Palma cuts to close ups that reveal all the self-touching gestures that soap ads use, and more. When the bar drops on the floor and bounces in slow motion, he cuts to a subjective shot that invites more intimacy, as Carrie’s hands now touch her inner thighs. Her body is most her own at this point and yet most fetishized, most erotic for us.

It is at this moment that the blood appears, dripping down her leg, to be discovered by her hand. We saw it before she did, and again de Palma plays with our voyeurism and our privilege to be curious and horrified. Marion was slashed by a knife in her shower: where is Carrie’s wound? In this key scene we are taunted by her self discovery—by its isolation and the ways it is prolonged and sexualized—so that its trauma becomes all of these things, and none of them. Finally, in medium shot, Carrie is permitted to connect mind and body. Yet at this point her isolation is complete. Her body itself has punished her.”Help me,” she screams at the nymphets, now shocked out of their stupors. The camera tracks toward them as they assemble—spontaneous militants chanting in unison: “Plug it up.” They bombard Carrie with Tampax and sanitary napkins as she crouches in a corner.

It is at this moment of Carrie’s self-hate and the collective barbarism of her peers that her eyes flash for the first time. Her defiant magic is explained by a cut from her crazed face to a subjective shot of the light bulb on the ceiling overhead. The bulb shatters inexplicably, the mob is quieted, and the rescue of Carrie by the gym teacher begins. Miss Collins can only threaten to deprive her girls of what they want most to do—attend their senior prom. Now the teacher can use her authority to prevent her students from attending what is for her a fondest memory. This gesture—motivated by what we come to see as this older woman’s loneliness—propels the narrative to its bloody end. The film makes no effort to suggest that her authoritarianism results from her job, her relation to it and to the organization of her work place. Her loneliness itself seems to be a kind of inborn flaw—she couldn't keep that high school sweetheart on the string. The locker room scene, with its scapegoat-mob interaction stemming from adolescent self discovery, thus gives impetus to Carrie’s telekinetic powers as a form of revenge and to the punitive blindness of a teacher whose misguided rage simply fits another kind of female stereotype. Essentially, it is the sexuality of a woman that controls her. Furthermore, it separates her from other women and is the very reason why neither role models nor close relations are possible.

From the outset of this film, de Palma systematically eliminates the possibility that female behavior can be understood in terms of socioeconomic phenomena. His narrative relies on images of blood and fetishized body parts (the prom night bloodbath occurs just after an extreme close up of Chris’ lips as her tongue hungrily caresses her red mouth) that serve to remind us that the primacy of a woman’s fragmented sexual identity is only a microcosm of her social desolation.

De Palma’s subjection of women to the ravages of their physical-physiological natures is also articulated in the ways by which he structures the film around the opposition of two institutions which influence and ultimately control the adolescent Carrie. Through elaborate mise-en-scene and rococo camera, the film pretends to distinguish home from school, contrasting and finally denying those spheres which women may control. Carrie and her mother share a tiny, oddly nonsuburban turn-of-the-century bungalow. Another clunky comment on Norman Bates’ (PSYCHO) more massive mausoleum, this little house is stuffed with relics and grim knickknacks—a parody of the crazed collector in woman. Property chokes and clutters the mad mind of Mrs. White, providing another pretext for De Palma’s virtuosity.

Mrs. White is never understood as anything but a freak who took the Bible too seriously for her own good, and is finally killed by her own Bean-ex in the heartland of her little home. Like all the women in the film, she brings on her own destruction she is punished for being a woman. There is a day-glo Last Supper on the wall and candle-lit suffering wax figurines on every surface. This private world of kitsch is our explanation of Mrs. White’s fanaticism—all necessary for her pardon from God: first for the “curse of blood,” then for her own lust and submission. Carrie is thus her mother’s shame personified. By some extraordinary leap (involving our notions of women-in-the-home, spiders waiting in their self-made traps), we are manipulated to believe that self-ignorance and telekinetic powers are her environmental and genetic inheritance. Rather than explode the real horrors of family dogma and parental authority, de Palma again relishes the sensual self-destruction of women who are ultimately privatized out of the productive world and into their own craziness. The baroque lighting, the weaving of the camera imply the final stages in the ritual of “homemaking,” but we learn nothing about the workings of that institution.

In the public sphere, where Carrie is a senior at Bates (ugh) High, again the film averts the possibility of exploring another node of institutionalized authority. The repressive aspects of this place are most specifically focused on in the person of Carrie’s gym teacher, Miss Collins. And while she is the opposite of Mrs. White, who wears long shrouds that hide even her ankles, this tall athletic woman who trots about braless and in track shorts is another victim of sexual frustration. There is no attempt to characterize the school hierarchy beyond typing the principal as a foolish lecher and the English teacher as a prissy baby. Once we associate Miss Collins’ lithe body with her authoritarian command over her female students, we are invited to fit her into the pattern as another woman whose lack of heterosexual fulfillment explains her entire identity and behavior. De Palma’s tracking camera moves past the sweating girls lined up for their punitive workout and records their puffing chests and tired thighs with the same relish he had displayed for the locker room vision. Miss Collins’ voice controls and coordinates their movements—she is angry and so are they.

It becomes more and more clear throughout the narrative that her desire to “rescue” Carrie has more to do with her own sense of unhappiness with being a woman and teaching women than with any understanding of what society has done to them all. Miss Collins’ special punishment for the blood-thirsty Chris—forbidding her to attend her own prom—brings on the final catastrophe that eliminates the senior class. Thus these two seemingly opposite women must share responsibility for the Hellish night. The gym teacher’s institutionalized authority, which victimizes her students and herself, is explained purely in terms of her physical nature. Neither Miss Collins nor Carrie’s mother feel anything but loathing for the sexual awakening that takes place among the adolescent girls who surround them. Their mistrust forms the basis on which we are asked to accept the impossibility of positive female relationships.

The final stage in this punishment of women by women is of course Carrie’s act of colossal monstrousness. Publicly splashed with pig blood, Carrie has a second moment of discovery that matches her horror in the shower episode. The gradual awareness of her position as a grotesque mockery of a prom queen is again conveyed with slow motion. Once again the camera fixates on her magic eyes, a split screen revealing that each of her stares can call forth the powers of nature to burn, drown, and hurl her victims through the air. As with each scene involving the self victimization of women, de Palma’s techniques run away with him while they reveal for us the essential ideology of the film. The prom night disaster is his moment of ultimate self-congratulation. He indulges in all the flashy tricks he knows—a 360 degree crane-pan shot of the prom king and queen: a mise-en-scene (often a rear projection display of blurred lights and faces and streamers) that includes every prom icon; the split screen; and lots of sound devices that alternately lull, seduce, and leave us in horrid silence.

As de Palma indulges and delights us with this display of female rage, it brings to mind the comment of a reputable late 19th century medical doctor (Dr. Weir Mitchell) concerning the pleasure of treating sick women: “The man who does not know sick women does not know women.”(3) CARRIE is thus a hymn to that inborn sickness, which de Palma attributes to the female power to reproduce and destroy. De Palma’s own attitude informs the very structure and imagery of the film—by sexualizing and mystifying this dread dualism of destruction tied to women’s reproductive power, he invites us to enjoy it as a spectacle and a travesty of growing up female.


1. Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses, a History of Women Healers, The Feminist Press, 1973, p. 15.

2. Janice Delaney and Mary Jane Lupton and Mary Toth, The Curse (New York, 1976), p. 70.

3. Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, Complaints and Disorders, the Sexual Politics of Sickness, The Feminist Press, 1973, p. 25.