Sometimes horror movies are even more terrifying when read metaphorically. In Dead Calm, the story of a husband and wife at sea with a murderous intruder is bad enough, but what if the murderer doesn’t exist?
Dead Calm is a well-executed but outdated psychological horror, adapted in 1989 for film from a 1963 novel by the same name by America Charles K. Williams (1909 – 1975).
Literary scholars today write about The Harlot’s Progress. This is a narrative archetype — a type of story — which still gets written today, though in different form. In the 18th century the story of the ‘harlot’ who did immoral sex things for money then died would have been very familiar to anyone living in the West. The story was everywhere, in art, in literature, in newspapers, and in the way people talked about women.
Many of the following notes are from Chastity and Transgression in Women’s Writing 1792-1897: Interrupting the Harlot’s Progress by Roxanne Eberle, 2002.
WHERE DID THE NAME “HARLOT’S PROGRESS” COME FROM?
The narrative of women punished for sex work goes back further than this, but “Harlot’s Progress” is a series of six paintings by William Hogarth, painted in 1731. He was riffing on The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Hogarth did the engravings over following year. His paintings have been destroyed but the engravings still exist.
In the first plate, an old woman tells a young woman, Moll Hackabout, that she’s beautiful and that she might consider sex work.
In the second plate Moll has two lovers. She then becomes a mistress and finally a sex worker. She is arrested and sent to prison. Then, at age 23, Moll dies from a sexually transmitted disease. All six plates can be viewed at full size over at Wikipedia.
THE HARLOT’S PROGRESS IN LITERATURE
The narrative of the harlot who comes to grief can be seen across English literature of the 18th century, as well as in these famous images. This archetype is not only applied to women who become sex workers, but is used as a moralistic tale to control the sex lives of women across the board.
Although Moll’s story was a didactic tale (for women), it was also presented as erotica (for men).
Pretty much everyone in the 19th century was familiar with this story. Hogarth’s images were printed onto decorative items such as fan-mounts (the part of a fan that’s not the stick and handle) and onto household items such as cups and saucers.
Newspaper articles about real women were influenced by this dominant narrative. “Fallen women”, “harlots” and “prostitutes” were presented to the hegemonic public as immoral and dangerous to society.
FEATURES OF A HARLOT’S PROGRESS STORY
Harlot’s Progress stories are linear — typically a form which serves masculine desire, in both the rhetorical and sexual sense of the word. (Feminine stories — those for and about women — more often tend to be circular in shape.)
Heroines in Harlot’s Progress stories are presented as Good characters who deserve the best possible fate. However, until she is claimed by a man, all of her virtues remain suspect. (The man who claims her recognises her intrinsic goodness.)
This ideal heroine follows a set path towards marriage and domesticity. Her quest is always the same: for the protective security of a publicly established virtuous reputation. [DESIRE]
The Harlot’s Progress narrative starts with either seduction or sexual violence. This will show the audience how vulnerable she is.
If she doesn’t have a father, she will need to find a father figure before she can secure a husband. [MENTOR]
Before achieving marriage, the heroine navigates her way through hoards of scary men in landscapes fraught with sexual transgression. [STORYWORLD]
In these spaces, female modesty is presented as fragile. [WEAKNESS]
If she succumbs to sexual impulses she will sabotage her chance at marriage and instead become a “fallen woman”. [MORAL DILEMMA]
But the reader is constantly encouraged to worry that she will be a victim of male violence.
The BIG STRUGGLE scene will include a situation in which the heroine has to evade predatory men and not be turned on by the threat of their violence.
She must avoid venturing off the path (seen also in the Grimm versions of Little Red Riding Hood, heavily influenced by the Harlot’s Progress narrative in the versions they collected). If she ventures off the path, she will run the risk of falling into a much more dangerous story.
The story usually ends with death. [NEW SITUATION]
COULD THE HARLOT’S PROGRESS NARRATIVE BE FEMINIST?
Some critics (e.g. Margaret Homans) have argued that linear narratives tend to correlate with static narratives. By static, we mean narratives which deliberately invoke stasis. However, critics such as Roxanne Eberle have argued that (proto-) feminists made use of familiar linear narratives in order to do feminist things with them. Linear stories are perfectly adequate in allowing for much experimentation. (E.g. A story can still be linear and not kill the heroine off at the end.)
The heroines of these books were rewarded with good husbands, financial resources and a domestic form of power. (Nancy Armstrong calls this specific form of power ‘the power of domestic surveillance’ in her book Desire and Domestic Fiction.)
Ultimately, these scripts serve the middle-class by presenting us with an ideal of the public male entrepreneur and his private angel in the house.
Importantly, these weren’t the only books being written in this era. At the turn of the 19th century the very construct of the British woman was much debated. The world was at war and Britain was grappling with social upheaval — there were massive changes going on in their rural, agrarian and feudal class system. How important were women in all this? Many people were talking about it.
‘Conservatives’ wanted to keep women virtuous and in the domestic/private sphere. ‘Radicals’ wanted to educate women well and enter the public sphere.
So alongside these archetypal Harlot’s Progress narratives we now saw the rise of the sexually transgressive but articulate heroine in fiction. Proto-feminist works (e.g. by Mary Wollstonecraft) starred heroines who had been ‘robbed’ of their chastity by men uninterested in marriage. Some heroines robbed of chastity critiqued the social system rather than succumbed to self-abasement. Proto-feminist writers found the Harlot’s Progress useful because it contained a paradox: It was very well-known by audiences, so provided a framework for variation. (Much as the mythic structure functions in popular storytelling today.) These porto-feminist variations on The Harlot’s Progress was also linear in shape, but also discursive (jumping from subject to subject, probably back and forth through time).
Progressive women were interested in Harlot’s Progress stories because they offer an extreme example of the duality of ‘body’ and ‘mind’ (morality) that enlightened women were dealing with in their own lives. Conservatives believed that unchaste women were dangerous and therefore dangerous members of society. Radical women writers challenged this belief by asking people to locate morality in the mind, separate from what a woman did with her body, or what others did to her body. (Occasionally these writers even dealt with matters of the heart.)
THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN REAL SEX WORK AND FICTIONAL SEX WORK
Importantly, novels were not written for the labouring-poor classes. Books were expensive and largely read by richer people who had no idea what real sex work looked like.
Real world sex work of this era looked very little like the archetypal fictional version. Most English sex workers were poor urban women who moved in and out of sex work as a way to supplement their families’ incomes. These women were not necessarily stigmatised within their own communities. This depended on their class. Norms within the sex work/labouring-poor culture of England at the time were distinct from the norms of the dominant culture. Any type of sex outside marriage was frowned upon. Let’s just say sex work didn’t receive especial scorn.
Sex work wasn’t pathologised and regulated until the 1880s. It was at this point that English sex workers started to become stigmatised even within their own communities.
THE HARLOT’S PROGRESS AND CONTEMPORARY STORYTELLING
WOMEN ARE STILL HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR (AVOIDING) SEXUAL ASSAULTS
I have just described 18th and 19th novels which starred heroines whose virtue alone could overcome sexual aggression, transforming male desire into middle-class love. But is this idea really dead?
When a police officer speaks to the public about a violent rape that took place in a public park, he’ll all-too-often tell women to stay away from parks. He’ll tell women not to get drunk if we don’t want to get raped. The problem with these broad service public announcements is this: Individual women may indeed avoid rapes in parks by restricting their own movements. But women are still far more likely to endure abuse in their own homes. And if individual women were able to avoid parks, predators would move on to another victim. Perpetrators are still not held to full account.
SEX WORKERS ARE STILL SEEN AS FALLEN, OSTRACISED WOMEN
Sex trafficking (and other kinds of human trafficking) remain a significant international problem. However, many sex workers today have chosen their profession and resent the enduring idea that they must be stuck in that job because of desperation, substance abuse or morally bad choices.
QUESTIONS TO ASK WHEN EVALUATING NARRATIVES
When a story contains the rape/abuse of a woman or marginalised identity, is this presented as punishment for sexual transgression?
Outside specific realms of erotica, is this punishment meted out in such a way that a voyeuristic audience would enjoy it? Would a misogynistic audience enjoy it?
When reading/watching stories about LGBTQ characters, do these characters die? If so, what is the narrative purpose?
Header painting: Thoughts of the Past exhibited 1859 John Roddam Spencer Stanhope 1829-1908. Stanhope’s portrayal of a prostitute in her lodging, who is suddenly overcome with remorse for her situation, reproduces the theme of the guilt-ridden prostitute that was prevalent in literature and paintings of the 1850s and 1860s, especially among the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers.
Stephen King’s list of top ten ALL TIME favourite books is doing the rounds, because anything Stephen King has ever said regularly does the rounds. That’s why I’m going to focus on Stephen King as just one example of a wider trend: Men don’t count women among their favourites.
Every single one of those books is either entirely by a man or edited by men.
For any widely read reader, limiting favourites to ten is always going to be a ridiculously contrived list, which is why it’s so annoying that he mindlessly picked creators who look/ed just like himself.
In his writing book, On Writing—mostly read by other writers and uber fans—Stephen King lists more of his favourite books at the back. Here you will find a few women.
This is a list of the books he recommended for writers back in 2000:
It’s possible I’ve misgendered a few but I’ve emboldened the female creators on his list. As you can see, the expanded list still skews hugely male. (A couple of those recommended books are by his own wife, but okay.)
King is so powerful as a writer that he is unable to criticise other writers without sounding mean-spirited.
Nevertheless, King sometimes punches down. These are the books King recommends in his memoir as examples of bad writing:
“Asteroid Miners” — which King admits is not the exact title (and therefore can’t be found) Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Sussan — the story of three young women who become fast friends in the turbulent post-war worlds of Broadway and Hollywood Flowers In The Attic by Virginia Andrews — about some children who are locked in the attic by their grandmother and begin an incestuous relationship. The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller — the story of about an Italian war bride, Francesca, who lives with her husband and two children on a farm in Iowa, then falls in love with someone else.
Though his list of negative examples is short, of the books King names accurately, they are either by a woman or about a specifically female experience. I’ll make no comment about how terrible they are, because that’s beside my point: If he was going to pick mainly men as good examples, there were plenty of male creators to choose from when picking bad ones. His list of bad books skews female.
HETEROSEXUAL MEN LOVE MEN
King’s top ten list, combined with his list of bad examples, reminds me of the following quote:
To say that straight men are heterosexual is only to say that they engage in sex (fucking exclusively with the other sex, i.e., women). All or almost all of that which pertains to love, most straight men reserve exclusively for other men. The people whom they admire, respect, adore, revere, honor, whom they imitate, idolize, and form profound attachments to, whom they are willing to teach and from whom they are willing to learn, and whose respect, admiration, recognition, honor, reverence and love they desire… those are, overwhelmingly, other men. In their relations with women, what passes for respect is kindness, generosity or paternalism; what passes for honor is removal to the pedestal. From women they want devotion, service and sex.
Heterosexual male culture is homoerotic; it is man-loving.
Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality (1983)
KING’S FAVORITE SHORT STORY COLLECTION
Stephen King’s favourite short story collection, The Golden Argosy, was published in 1955. Inevitably, that includes mainly white male writers as well.
This collection is no longer in print, but a reviewer on Goodreads collected links to each of the stories as they exist on the web, and here it is.
This year I’ll make sure to read the paucity of women in this collection. If I haven’t already, I’ll write about their stories on this blog.
(Edit: Now that I’ve read them, only two of the five are about women — “Big Blonde” and “Flowering Judas”.)
LET’S MAKE LISTS OF WOMEN
Since publishing corporations will tell you, women keep their corporations alive. In the USA, women are the more avid book readers, per the study, being 13% more likely than men to have read a book in the prior 12 months (77% vs. 68%). Women are also far more likely to be buying books as gifts for others.
I don’t need to go out of my way to gender balance my reading. I’ve done a post hoc count up and it happens quite naturally, probably because I’m female myself.
I write a newsletter for a sports club, and each month I do a member profile. Our club breakdown is almost exactly half women, half men. Writing newsletters is a bit of a pain in the neck, but I go out of my way to ask as many women as men for interviews. This isn’t easy, because more men than women come down to play other members (rather than privately).
We can all do small things like this to improve the current state of play.
However, in the name of redressing a wider imbalance…
MY FAVOURITE ALL TIME FAVOURITEST MOST FAVOURITE BEST EVER AUTHORS
In no particular order, here is my list of ALL TIME favourite authors.
Writers cannot simply flip a few gender tropes and hope for pats on the back. Writers need to read the damn room. They need to actually listen to women when women say — as women have been saying this entire year, and last year, and all the years before that — that women know our own minds. We don’t need men to know our minds for us.
In The Christmas Chronicles, our adventurous heroine causes Santa to crash his sleigh. On the ground, nobody but the kids believe he’s ‘the real santa’, but Santa manages to pull adults up short by knowing everyone’s names, and also the content of their deepest desires, stretching back to when they were kids. (In storytelling terms, he knows their conscious desires — a certain toy of the year — as well as their underlying desires — their wish to make their families happy etc.) Basically, Santa is a red and white version of an omniscient god. (I’m going to leave the inherent creepiness of that aside.)
In this particular version of a ‘true believers will be richly rewarded’ story, Santa ends up in prison, which allows for a good fish-out-of water comic set-up. Jail is the last place for Santa, right? Santa breaks into people’s homes to GIVE stuff, not to take it away. The writers have made the most of the comic irony here.
The jail sequence begins with a scene completely lacking in 2018 informed sensibility.
The following conversation takes place between the newly imprisoned Santa and a police officer who thinks he’s being pranked. The only way Santa can prove he’s the ‘real’ Santa is by playing the role of a TV psychic. Santa tells the officer things deeply personal things about himself.
POLICE OFFICER: You know what I want for Christmas? SANTA: It’s my job, Dave. POLICE OFFICER: Okay, then, smart guy. What do I want? SANTA: Lisa. POLICE OFFICER: Lisa? SANTA: Your ex-wife. POLICE OFFICER: I know who Lisa is. How did you… SANTA: She left you a couple years ago, and all you want for Christmas is for her to come back. POLICE OFFICER: Yeah, well, that ain’t ever gonna happen. SANTA: Yeah, I think maybe. [facial expression suggests the officer is wrong] POLICE OFFICER: Okay, look, pal. You don’t walk in here and talk about my ex-wife. SANTA: Dave, just… just give her a call. POLICE OFFICER: She doesn’t wanna talk to me. SANTA: Yes! Yes, she does! Now, she’s… she’s having second thoughts and… she’s lonely, too. And she really misses you! POLICE OFFICER: Now I know you’re out of your tree. Will you please stop this? SANTA: You know who I am! I mean, you’ve always been a suspicious, doubtful type. That’s probably why you’re a good cop. But deep down, you know that I know what everybody wants for Christmas. So, just give her a call, Dave! POLICE OFFICER: I don’t know how you know all this stuff.
Within the world of this story, Santa knows what the unseen ex-wife really wants because he knows what everyone really wants. The ex-wife wants the man she previously left to just call her.
If stories existed in a completely separate bubble from the real world, this might work fine.
But within the world of the actual real world, when women leave their partners, it’s generally for a damn good reason, and if they give their ex-partners the impression they want no further contact, they damn well mean that. Women don’t need men sitting together in rooms, trying to persuade each other that women don’t really mean exactly what women say.
The notion that women don’t mean ‘no’ when we say ‘no’ is dangerously pervasive, for women. For women, this sometimes means murder. It very frequently means physical or emotional abuse.
When script writers create scenes like this in a movie for children, they are perpetuating the idea that women don’t know our own minds — that men know better. Worse, men *magically* know better. Or they should magically know better. Silly old emotionally deaf police officer, failing to pick up the real situation. Santa is persuading the police officer that he’s got the situation completely arse about. (Because men are emotional dolts when it comes to women — another tired, self-perpetuating trope.)
Since this character is a police officer, the scene feels even worse, if that’s possible. In family films, police officers are portrayed as the good guys, except when they blatantly are not. The police officer in The Christmas Chronicles is an unambiguous good guy. Like the child viewer, he craved certain toys. (It is implied he didn’t get them — poor him.) Now he’s an adult, all he wants is love. Poor him. It can’t be just any love, though. It must be the love of the woman who left him for reasons known only to herself. Another concerning trope: The myth of the one true love.
Domestic abuse among police officers is even higher than in the general population. This has been known for some time.
Research suggests that family violence is two to four times higher in the law-enforcement community than in the general population. So where’s the public outrage?
Once again, an audience is encouraged to take a man’s sexual desire seriously without considering the woman’s side. What a man wants — the love (and possibly the control) of a woman — is prioritised above what a woman wants — to not have that with this particular man.
Since it obviously needs saying, people cannot read minds. Women can’t read minds, either — though women are acculturated into listening to cues, prioritising male desire over our own and picking up on body language, then acting accordingly. Too often, men fail to do the same for women.
Have we not had enough of that this year? Have we not?
Also relevant, family violence spikes at Christmas. The violence is heavily gendered. It’s mostly men trying to control women, thinking they know better than women, thinking their own right to exist in the world takes preference over a woman’s autonomy.
That’s why a scene in which two men discuss the desire of an unseen woman is so hugely problematic.
In case you think, “It’s only a story”, consider this: precisely because it’s only a story, the writers could have given the police officer in The Christmas Chronicles LITERALLY any other desire. It did not have to involve the love of a woman who left the officer for unexplored reasons.
If the writers were really reading the room, the police officer would have been a woman.
My wish for 2019: Keep men away from movies for kids. Hand over the reins.
For audiences: Don’t mistake a sparky, adventurous female lead for genuine feminism in film. The Christmas Chronicles is not it.