While movies are a great way to unwind after a long week in Butler, they also make statements about the society we inhabit. In her recent lecture “The Challenge to Avert Tragedy: ‘The Winter’s Tale’ Refigured in ‘Vertigo,’ ‘Pheonix,’ and ‘Gone Girl’,” Professor Elisabeth Bronfen examines the role of women in recent blockbusters. After attending the lecture, Bwog writers Lila Etter and Rebecca Novik are here with the highlights.
“Oh everyone, please sit down! You’re all making me nervous standing up like that!” Elisabeth Bronfen, Professor of British and American Studies at the University of Zurich, exclaims as she begins her lecture in the Ella Weed Room in Milbank. The jam packed room is in a feminist trance like no other.
Before the lecture begins, we’re introduced to Bronfen’s impressive and fascinating career. Bronfen is a Global Distinguished Professor of German at NYU, and her interdisciplinary career includes studies on literature, film, psychoanalysis, gender studies, and cultural theory. I know I’m in for something glorious when I learn that one of her most famous books is titled “Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity, and the Aesthetic” (YAS).
The lecture mainly drew from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, the Hitchcock classic Vertigo, and David Fincher’s representation of Gone Girl. Throughout her lecture, Bronfen worked toward an overarching (and blissfully hopeful) theme of the progressive evolution of the female heroine in the narrative today, coupled with the broadening possibilities of narrative structure as a whole.
She began with the previously inevitable, and seductive, conclusions of tragedy: total death and destruction. Bronfen encouraged her audience to challenge these assumptions, commenting that tragedy doesn’t have to have such a singular resolution, and how “averting the alluring compulsion to tragedy” gives it a complexity and different gravitational pull. Bronfen then focused on gender norms, patterns, and expectations in the narrative obsession with the resurrection of the “dead” woman in old and contemporary culture using Gone Girl and Vertigo.
Bronfen talked about how both cases mirror each other in how the men, or the heroes, fall in love with the idea of the heroines, and then how the heroines were perceived to be dead. Both involve the self-deception and resilience exhibited by the women, and fierce projections of narcissism displayed by the men. The narratives change when the women are resurrected; Vertigo’s Judy becomes the exact copy of the man’s desire for the “old” self, whereas Gone Girl’s Amy returns to Nick, and they mutually understand each other’s character changes and horrendous tricks.
The difference, and what Bronfen feels represents a gleam of tremendous positivity, is that Amy, the heroine, gets to take the director’s seat. She controls her own destiny, and doesn’t have to pretend to be “Cool Girl,” or her old, fabricated self, for anyone anymore, even after her return from death. Amy dictates and manipulates the media, her money, her image, and her husband, Nick (On the subject of Nick, Bronfen exclaimed, “What a clueless man! So dumb!” and sighed.)
In the context of a psychological thriller, Amy, a woman in control, also happens to be a murderous monster. What is significant is that a woman can now take this role in the context of any narrative, and no longer has to pander to the impressions that the male character desires of her. Bronfen then asked us to reevaluate the female sacrifice here, as a form of female empowerment (by now, I feel empowerment running through my veins.)
Gone Girl challenges not only gender norms, but the tragic inevitability of death as well – with Nick and Amy ending up together, alive, and mutually understanding each other’s f*cked up-ness. The key here, Bronfen reminded us, is that this conclusion was crafted under the sole volition of Amy. That’s a powerful concept.
Elisabeth Bronfen – thank you.
Image via Wikimedia Commons