Other Voices, v.2, n.3 (January 2005)
Copyright © 2005, Other Voices/Julie Grossman, all rights reserved. All images Copyright © 1995 Columbia Tri-Star Films
In Todd Haynes's 1995 film [Safe] Carol White becomes environmentally sick as a sublimated response to the empty upper-class housewife's role she leads. Although she acquires no voice with which to articulate her rebellion against the husband, the medical doctor, and the psychiatrist, all of whom see nothing wrong with her, she rebels by developing multiple chemical sensitivity. As has been noted, [Safe] functions as a late twentieth-century reprise of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's celebrated short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" about a woman's postpartum experience of the rest cure.1 Like Gilman, Haynes charts the story of a woman forced into sickness and, strangely, forced through her sickness to rebel against a thoroughly masculinist culture ruled by discourses that inhibit human agency and imagination. While Gilman's unnamed narrator escapes her confinement through madness, the affect-less Carol White, brilliantly played by Julianne Moore, escapes her indoctrination as a sanitized Stepford-wife servant of male consumerist culture, first, through illness, then, as a response to that illness, through the adoption of the mindless self-help rhetoric of the Wrenwood retreat, a bogus support group. Both texts are about a woman's attempt to own her life in a culture utterly defined by stifling conventions and social regulations: in particular, the male-defined discipline of medicine. Gilman's narrator wishes to counter her depression and isolation by becoming active and by writing; her doctor-husband insists that she has "a slight hysterical tendency," and she is "absolutely forbidden to 'work' until [she is] well again" (Gilman, 42).
Reading [Safe] in juxtaposition to "The Yellow Wallpaper" helps illuminate the strongly feminist spirit of the film,2 which can be understood in two related ways: First, [Safe] offers a scathing critique of the masculinist cultural disciplines-most especially a radical individualist insistence on self-help—that organize American experience and self-definition. Second, the film subverts the principle of ameliorative cinema, a shallow optimism where a feminist position can only be imagined in terms of paradigms of role-modelling, which holds troubling implications for the prospect of feminist representation. These two elements of the film are connected in an important way, since the film's refusal to lend effective and conscious agency to Carol—frustrating and disturbing critics and viewers—shows aggressively not only the extent to which social disciplines victimize women but also the limits of feel-good representations of women who overcome obstacles and manage their oppression. [Safe]'s meaning is less ambiguous, though no less complex, than it is generally taken to be, much more than the "chic postmodern chiller" it was deemed by Rita Kempley (Kempley, D2). Further, the critical response it has elicited points to the powerfully persistent role of ameliorative cinema, even in the context of independent filmmaking. The film forces us to de-Gump our sentimental reading of film through its alienating mise-en-scene and through its presentation of a woman whose distance from a conventional feminist ideal moves us to consider the limits of that ideal as it is sentimentally portrayed in mainstream American film, as well as the brutality and danger to women inherent in the social disciplines that rule, define, and explain the character of Carol White.
Indeed, Todd Haynes is the ultimate Foucauldian social-problem film director, all of whose films are about how social institutions (including, as Edward O'Neill notes, the cinema) produce identities.3 [Safe] shows the very categories of mind and body to be unreliable barometers of health and well-being. The social institutions—of marriage, and medicine, and American individualism and the cult of self-help, as well as the larger organizing principles of class, gender, and race (Carol's surname of "White" marks an illusion of "safe" identity that the film destabilizes4 )—determine Carol's unfortunate fate. While Naismith documents the effect of these structures on Carol, the way, for example, Wrenwood "ignores the social and structural factors that produce ill health" (379), she stops short of articulating Haynes's critique, since she, like other viewers and critics (see Lynch, for example), maintains that there is ambiguity regarding the sources of Carol's illness: "Despite a bias towards the physical explanation, Haynes makes it impossible to settle definitively on one reading over another because of the complicating factors of Carol's fragile sense of identity, which enters into both her and our response to her illness, and the absence of concrete knowledge about environmental illness. [Safe] sets up these possible readings, only to throw their validity into doubt, so that our understanding of what and who is to blame for Carol's illness constantly fluctuates" (368). I want to contest this reading of Carol experience as ambiguous: Haynes clearly identifies as criminal all of the social disciplines and structures that appear in the film, and Carol's case is too hopeless to allow for anything but sympathy for her. It is, I believe, our psychological and socially inscribed need to rebuke individuals who have no power to change their circumstances that makes us want to find fault with Carol. Two points need to be made regarding our frustration with and criticism of Carol: first, focusing on the trouble with Carol bypasses her status as a character: a symbol in a pattern of meaning; this issue I will return to, as I later discuss other examples of feel-good films whose virtues are limited to our regard for models of viewer identification and projected desire. Second, far from evading politics by showing his "heroine" to be "merely" a victim with no hope of transforming her condition or circumstance, Haynes offers an uncompromised and, I would argue, deeply politicized view of a diseased system of social regulation. The film begs viewers to examine the process of the social production of identity—in this case, sick identity—and to consider the serious cost of both leaving these processes unexamined and settling for trite or easy answers.
In his book Karl Marx, Allen Wood says that we are alienated (in a specifically Marxist sense) "if we either experience our lives as meaningless or ourselves as worthless, or else are capable of sustaining a sense of meaning and self-worth only with the help of illusions about ourselves or our condition" (qtd. in Tong, 98-99). The comment helps us to situate the lead characters in "The Yellow Wallpaper" and [Safe] as, at least at the start of their respective texts, participators in false consciousness. The narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" has internalized her status as a commodity by supporting the efforts of John, her husband, to restrain her body and suppress her imagination: "He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction. I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more" (Gilman, 43). The narrator's initial denial of her entrapment, even as she begins to become aware of dissatisfaction with her relationship—"It is so hard to talk to John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so" (Gilman, 50)—is matched by Carol White's affectless and vague repetition throughout the film that she is "fine," exemplifying Simone De Beauvoir's portrait in The Second Sex of victims and perpetrators of false consciousness:
Carol's alienation and self-delusion—her "[failure] to lay claim to the status of subject"—are signaled immediately when we see her have sex with her husband, the scene with which Haynes very pointedly begins his film. The camera records Carol's dissociation from the experience as she calmly and methodically rubs her husband's back as he grunts toward orgasm on top of her. The sterility of the scene is so haunting because it's evident that this is always how Carol and Greg have sex. But the scene is particularly painful to watch because it is also clear that Carol treats sex just as one of Marx's workers treats his or her job: as alienated labor, as something regularly to be got through.
Carol senses that something is wrong, but she diagnoses herself as "stressed out," as needing rest. She goes to the hairdresser and gets herself a perm, ironically underscoring what Betty Friedan identified, in the title of chapter one of The Feminine Mystique, as "the problem that has no name," not only because Haynes suggests that the solution late capitalist consumer culture offers for malaise is to spend money on something (which is, of course, no solution at all), but also because the perm itself has the effect of turning Carol into a commodity, a beauty product. With her perm, an apt sign of the times—the film takes place in the aerosol-loving late 80s—Carol looks like one of Mary Wollstonecraft's "mere dolls" who have "nothing to do, but listlessly...go they scarcely care where, for they cannot tell what" (Wollstonecraft, 444, 446). Thus Carol's alienation and tragedy reside partly in her absolute ignorance about the sources of her fatigue and discomfort.
Carol initially believes she has the resources to cure herself. The Whites have money and status, and she—a "total milkaholic"—lives a safe, blindingly conventional life, whose sterility and dysfunction are indicated in her cheerful admission that she does not sweat. As Carol begins to pursue the cause of and treatments for her illness, the family doctor increasingly expresses his irritation, insisting that nothing is "turning up on the tests." "Look Carol," the patronizing doctor concludes, "From a medical standpoint, there's just no way to prove that this thing is an immune system breakdown, much less one based on environmental factors." Unconscious of a more complex set of assumptions than conventional enlightenment discourse can provide, the medical community fails to treat Carol, just as John and the community of male doctors alluded to in Gilman's story fail to treat the narrator. In each case the medical community—dominated by men—lacks the means to recognize what in fact is wrong.
"The Yellow Wallpaper" and [Safe] offer a similar explanation for these failures: that the systems of thought in place to respond to symptoms of illness are devoted to the perpetuation of the system rather than tending to the people they purport to treat or cure. These systems are scientific models, based on rationality and reason.5 In the case of Gilman's story, for example, the narrator says, "[John] knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him" (Gilman, 44). Similarly Carol undergoes a series of tests, which reveal nothing but seem to satisfy the doctors who determine that Carol should be delivered to another medical discipline to cure her illness. The psychiatrist, however, is equally impotent, a fact made clear in Haynes's mise-en-scene, as Carol sits vulnerably opposite to the psychiatrist, who is barricaded behind his vast desk. Social structures in the film claim to fortify; they parade as protection, but are in fact forms of entrapment. Haynes reinforces his association between the failure of male authority figures and the more systemic failure of masculinist cultural disciplines in a scene in which Carol tries to walk unnoticed late at night in her garden, only to be frightened into returning into her house when a police car pulls up to monitor her well-being: "Everything alright, ma'am?"
When Carol discovers environmental illness as the cause of her symptoms, she becomes, for the first time, engaged with her experience. Carol develops beyond the simple role of empty and passive suburban housewife, a role which she simultaneously reflects and rebels against when she falls asleep at the restaurant table as she dines with her husband, his sexist-joke-telling business clients, and their wives. Carol's discovery of her illness ironically brings her to life. She has a purpose now: to figure out how best to treat her multiple chemical sensitivity. In [Safe], Carol's illness functions metaphorically. That is not to say that in real life people do not struggle with environmental illness, or that chemical sensitivity in our post-industrial age is not a concern. However, Haynes does not exhibit much interest in the particular illness, in the same way, perhaps, as Gilman is not interested in the specific nature of her narrator's illness (Is it postpartum depression? Probably, but this is not the focus of the story). What is clear is that Gilman and Haynes are much more interested in attacking the disenfranchisement of people unnourished by mainstream society.
It is, of course, impossible for John or the medical and self-help groups represented in both texts to cure the narrator and Carol because the illnesses articulated in the story and film are social illnesses. They are cultural diseases that are to be explained or understood as symptoms of a sick society's reliance on enlightenment discourse designed to maintain a cultural status quo, which requires us, as Roddey Reid observes, "to draw boundaries, purify, and segregate out pollutants and blamable, unhealthy others" (Reid, 34). Historically, the implications of this conservative ideology have been particularly grave for women, as Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English suggest in their work on hysteria in the nineteenth century, when
Interestingly, the illness of both the narrator and Carol is expressed in terms of these women's senses. Gilman's narrator develops synesthesia, registering "a yellow smell," but increasingly develops an acute sensitivity to her environment, as her sense of vision sharpens to make her intensely engaged with the pattern on the wallpaper. In [Safe], Carol White becomes more and more responsive to the caustic environment of San Fernando Valley, to the point that she throws up as a result of embracing her husband, just after he has applied his aerosol hairspray and deodorant.
This last episode is telling in its symbolic reference to the gender components of the social illness Haynes articulates, since Carol's life is characterized mainly in terms of stereotypes of women's role in culture (aerobics classes, buying furniture for the home, fruit diets, and baby showers). Carol is a nothing, as blank as her surname of "White" indicates. She betokens the women Charlotte Perkins Gilman writes about in Women and Economics: "As men go down to the sea in ships, and bring coffee and spices and silks and gems from far away, so do women partake of the coffee and spices and silks and gems the men bring" (Gilman, 319). Carol's context for emotional expression is so limited to her somnambulist role as affluent housewife that we see her the most overwrought—"Omigod," she exclaims—when the furniture store delivers a black instead of a teal couch. With dramatic irony, Haynes records Carol's reaction before we see the source of her horror and dismay. And Carol's dissociation is symbolic not only of the failure of sexual and gender roles to function but also of utter disconnection among classes, a point Haynes dramatizes in the very class-conscious mise-en-scene of foregrounding Carol's abstracted response to her son Rory's discussion of a school paper on black and Chicano gangs—vaguely and insipidly, Carol asks, "why does it have to be so gory?"—as the Whites' Hispanic maid-servant Fulvia appears in deep focus cleaning the kitchen in the background.
[Safe] is not, as I have suggested, invested in whether or not Carol's illness is real, if what we mean by real is something like biochemical: her symptoms are not indicative of individual sickness but of the disease inherent in the modern industrial landscape. It is, however, Carol's attempt to escape that landscape to the new-agey self-help enclave in New Mexico that accounts for the film's most withering commentary on contemporary American culture.
The Wrenwood retreat, located "in the foothills of Albuquerque," is the epitome of a cultural discipline that spreads social disease as it purports to regulate our lives and cure our illnesses. The program at Wrenwood is a satire of self-help, twelve-step programs, full of vapid rhetorical questions ("What is your total load?") and ameliorative mottos: "We are safe, and all is well in our world"—hence the title of the film. Carol is coddled by her new friends, all of whom are disenfranchised, ostensibly as a result of their illnesses, which are not acknowledged by mainstream culture. The head of the program is Peter Dunning, who comes across with such smarmy earnestness that it may be easy to miss the film's scathing attack on all the cultural obsessions that Peter represents. The camera first exposes Peter's hypocrisy in a shot of the huge mansion he lives in. More aggressive is Haynes's deflation of Peter by repeatedly juxtaposing images of him (in one case just after he has pontificated about how "lucky" and "blessed" he is) with images of Lester, the broken-down, scarecrow-like Wrenwood "client," eviscerated by who-knows-what combination of physical and emotional trauma. Lester paces the sidelines of the film's action like a silent chorus.
Peter's mantra is that one can cure one's illness through self-love: "the person who hurt me the most is me." Peter counsels his Wrenwood clients, who convene at the retreat with various forms of unexplained, vague symptoms, that "nobody made you get sick, that the only person who can make you get sick is you, whatever the sickness." Peter continues, "If our immune system is damaged, it's because we have allowed it to be [through anger]." To make themselves better, Peter advises his clients "to remember [their] affirmations [and to love themselves more]." Peter's theme, according to the logic of the film, is a fairly monstrous emanation of American individualism, a notion underscored by the film's repeated reference to the power of the individual. In a television ad, Claire Fitzpatrick, Director of Wrenwood, says, "What I think makes us really unique is our emphasis on the individual"; Peter Dunning echoes the emphasis of Wrenwood in his opening speech about the centrality of "personal growth and self-realization"; toward the end of the film, the indoctrinated Carol White, a true tabula rasa, tells her husband (with her typical use of vague pronouns), "It's up to the individual." Because the cult of Wrenwood assumes that individuals have the power to heal themselves, the program sets these same individuals up for madness when they discover the limits of their own power to address the real sources of their illnesses.
In fact, Wrenwood insists on isolation and self-love, rather than attention to community and social politics. Peter says, "I've stopped reading the papers. I've seen their negative fatalistic attitude and I do not need it." The dismissal of politicized readings of social illness evokes the specter of Forrest Gump, whose lesson that simplicity and ignorance constitute health and well-being merely generates more false consciousness in a culture unwilling to examine the effects of oppressive social systems.6 Peter Dunning's Gump-like response to political and cultural strife is best expressed in his opening speech, when he says to Wrenwood inhabitants, "I want you to look at the world as positive, as free, as the world we've created here [at Wrenwood]...What you are seeing outside is a reflection of what you feel within...What I am seeing is a global transformation, identical to the transformation I revel at, within."
The brutality of Wrenwood's false gift of self-love and the inadequacy of radical individualist responses to social problems is commented on by Haynes himself, when he says that one reason for making [Safe] was to attack a book by Louise Hay on AIDS written in the 1980s that, according to Haynes, "literally states that if we loved ourselves more we wouldn't get sick with this illness...That's scary."7 Notably, we are told in [Safe] that Peter Dunning has AIDS. In an interview with Collier Schorr, Haynes clarifies the point further when he says, specifically referring to Hay's book, The AIDS Book: Creating a Positive Approach,
The Barmecide feast of Carol White's improvement is clearly demonstrated in her increasingly rarified existence at Wrenwood. While she claims to feel better and to be so happy that she is finally surrounded by those who understand her, her climactic speech expressing gratitude after Wrenwood's birthday tribute to her is utterly incoherent:
Carol's rambling and incoherent speech parallels her fragmented life and body, as opposed to the unified sense of well-being she thinks she's gaining at Wrenwood and she tries to articulate in the words above. Carol's living quarters are also increasingly alien. By the end of the film, Carol lives in a sterile hut: a white, aseptic enclosed space, like the word enclosed in brackets in the film's title8; the igloo she lives in is apparently "safe as long as no one [else sets] foot inside" of it. Carol is permanently attached to an oxygen tank; her face is pale and blotchy; and her emaciated body disappears into the scrubs she wears for walking around the compound.
When Carol White looks into the mirror and says "I love you. I really love you" to end the movie, [Safe] shows us the desperate gesture of a trapped woman who, like the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper," has, in the end, no options for freedom under the available cultural dispensation. What is left is a kind of madness; for Carol, the madness is disguised as self-love. In emphasizing the failure of Carol's individualist attempts to cure herself, the film's ending exposes systemic problems in the culture that many viewers of [Safe] have not wanted to acknowledge.
While there is not a lot of critical writing on the film, to the extent that such response exists—in the form of a small number of articles, several interviews with Haynes, film reviews, student comments, and web pages—many viewers find the ending dissatisfying: Leonard Maltin calls the Wrenwood episodes "tiresome" (Maltin, 1205), and the San Francisco Chronicle's Edward Guthmann says that in the second half of the film, Haynes's "shifts into a minor key" (Guthmann, C3). These responses seem to reveal the culture's inadequate language for talking about America's indebtedness to the ideology of self-reliance and self-help. More surprising to me is the common-enough response to the film that the ending is to some degree hopeful: The Washington Post's Rita Kempley says "Drained though she may be, [Carol] is nonetheless happier than ever when she moves into a germ-free igloo" (Kempley, D2). One viewer posts the following rather stunning comment on his website:
I would like to suggest that Carol's final words to herself are not a sign of incipient recovery, the triumph of a woman who has "found herself," but an emblem of her lost grasp of reality. In fact, I would argue that only in this culture would it be possible to read Carol's "I love you" to herself as unironic. A way of getting at why some viewers are compelled to read the film in such a way that clearly violates the critical spirit of the film can be fleshed out by thinking, once again, about the popularity of America's so-called "Best Movie of 1994," Forrest Gump, which premiered only a year before [Safe] was released.
According to Forrest Gump, it doesn't matter what happens in the world around us if we believe in ourselves. Forrest Gump himself, expressing his intuitive sense of the right and the good, tells us how much he believes in himself: "I'm not a smart man, but I know what love is." In our desire to ratify ameliorative filmmaking, which teaches us the value of the power of the individual to determine her life, we endorse the movies that offer us simple answers to complex problems, and we dismiss the difficult film texts that want to incite our thinking about these complexities.
America's dream of the transcendent self, free from the forces of circumstance and society, haunts the culture. Just as I happened to be working on an early draft of this essay in southern Colorado some time ago, I came across an article in a local newspaper that seemed to underscore the pervasiveness of cultural myths about self-determination. In the "Lifestyle" section of the Pueblo Chieftain, John McGuire asked a series of rhetorical questions in an essay entitled, "The world is what you make of it, literally": "Why are we so ready to allow someone else to determine our futures? . . . Are you your own authority? Do you own yourself?" McGuire's answer is that "You and I are like God because we (literally) are God . . . Pure consciousness, pure awareness, pure emerging opinions from your heart" (McGuire, 7B). Finally, McGuire submits that "[Consciousness] is the degree to which we choose to wake up." The example illustrates Andrew Ross's point about New-Age cultures, that "while most New Age practices today are still restricted to a minority culture, the influence of their ethical principles is quite mainstream and quite middle-class, permeating suburban life and corporate philosophy alike" (533; qtd. in Naismith, 375). McGuire also articulates the individualist mantra of [Safe]'s Peter Dunning, whose radical self-help stance implies a world entirely without contingency, exactly the ideological position [Safe] is savaging, as Haynes makes clear when he asks, "why is there such a complete and total replacement of what was once an outward-looking critique of society by this notion of a transcendent self that can solve all our problems?" (Gross, 53).
Haynes's answer to his own question lies in the film's title: American culture is desperate for "safe" havens, inventing categories to define that safety and to project the ameliorative fantasy that we can attain mastery of our environments. Further, Haynes's exposure of this fantasy of radical individualist power holds serious implications for representations of minority groups, and in his portrayal of the profoundly limited Carol White, Haynes challenges mainstream American culture's attraction to this very model of the transcendent individual as it purports to mark possibilities for feminist empowerment.
The concern of some of the film's viewers that the character of Carol White fails to provide a model of female empowerment reveals serious lacunae in our understanding of the structural foundations of illnesses such as those symbolized by Carol's multiple chemical sensitivity. Critics as diverse as Constance Penley and Janet Maslin have agreed that the film's representation of Carol is problematic: Roddey Reid paraphrases Constance Penley's comment to him that Carol is "one of the emptiest female characters ever to appear on screen and anachronistically evokes in 1987 a world of women untouched by feminism (pre-1970)," while Maslin says of Carol that she is "more a specimen than a heroine" and sees Haynes as "failing only when it comes time to give his audience some glimpse of her inner life."9 Even an excellent critical essay by Roy Grundmann focusing on the film's identification of "the deeper levels of patriarchy" (Grundmann, 23) concludes by suggesting that in the end the film falls short by relegating Carol White to the role of pathetic object of our pity (as opposed, presumably, to a character with whom, finally, we might identify).
Such responses to [Safe] illuminate our tendency to confine politically useful readings of texts to those that emphasize individual transcendence and thus fail, as Penley's remark suggests she does, to take into account the many lives that do remain, unfortunately, untouched by feminisms because of the difficulty and the unsafety of abandoning individual-based conceptions of empowerment. Instead of confronting, for example, the ways in which and reasons why feminisms have not yet reached mainstream society, we support the further proliferation of "safe" discourses: "women's culture," such as Oxygen.com, Ally McBeal, the work of Deborah Tannen, and the Lifetime network, all of which emphasize the common "inner life" and supposedly shared experience of women.10
There is not a place where this cultural pull toward safe havens more entrenchedly exists than in popular film, where we see our concern with safety reflected in—and certainly, to some degree, constructed by—unchallenging so-called role-models. [Safe] aims to undercut this preoccupation, while appealing to a more complex understanding of the effects of gender construction on female agency. Without such attention to these complexities, both in our cultural responses to safe discourse and in our craving for stable categories of identity, prospects for change are limited, a point made clear by Haynes: "Is there something diametrically opposed about political engagement and having a secure absolutely unquestioning identity? I think there is" (qtd. in Dargis, 39).
In the area of film representation few films invent new ways of talking about gender and feminisms that challenge the status quo. The films that do try to locate the systemic resistance to female power are marginalized because they do not make us feel good. For example, Susan Streitfeld's little-seen Female Perversions, like [Safe], is about the blurring of internal and external influences on female identity; both films invert the terms of social hierarchies, since it is the "safe" worlds of Eve and Carol, these films' main characters, that are revealed to be alien, "perverse."
What these un-ameliorative films share is a willingness to violate a tacit cultural contract that "feminist" texts are those that offer positive models for female empowerment, such as The Spitfire Grill (1996), a perfectly enjoyable film about an outcast young woman named Percy Talbot (Allison Elliot) who redeems a small town in rural Maine. In stark contrast, [Safe] presents the more troubling view that there is hardly any escape from the ideological frames we live within. Carol White and all of the women in Female Perversions try to meet, at varied levels of consciousness difficult to articulate, the demands the culture so often places on them either to ignore (in post-feminist fashion) the limitations placed on them, or to transcend (in enlightenment-individualist fashion) these same limitations. Insight about the complicated and disturbing network of cultural forces that impede female agency has to lie in some middle ground of awareness, in the uncomfortable psychic and social terrain Haynes and Streitfeld symbolically represent. We do not identify with Carol White because there is no heroic teleology embedded in her character; in fact, Haynes comments on his attempt in [Safe] to pass judgment on this aspect of ameliorative mainstream film:
If in Thelma and Louise, where this teleology exists, the heroines' gradual abandonment of makeup reveals their ability to escape culture (which traps women) into nature (which liberates women), in [Safe], Carol's relinquishing of makeup and her subsequent escape into the natural world of the southwest desert signals Carol's freedom from one set of imprisoning discourses only to be caught within another ideological frame which seeks to cordon her off, and ultimately, to kill her. Moreover, Haynes's comment suggests far less ambiguity about his tone—"It's so upsetting to me, I can't tell you"—than critics have allowed.
Anxiety about ambivalent portraits of women and searing representations of the social traps the culture sets for women keeps us, I am arguing, from examining with adequate care and sensitivity some of the texts that mean to go more deeply into analyzing culture than a schematic presentation of a film heroine allows for. If, to draw an example from literary study, we pull away from Morrison's Sula because it is possible to read the female characters as pitched against one another, we lose the insights yielded from critical analyses of a text that will not settle for easy categorization of women. The potentially problematic gender politics of Sula do not vitiate the novel's appeal to a complex emotional intelligence that respects a variety of imagined possibilities for female empowerment. The novel will not simply choose (and will not allow us to simply choose) the straightforward virtues of conventional, or "realistic," versions of transcendent female strength, as opposed to symbolic considerations of female power or of the lack of female power that might more clearly identify the obstacles that stand in the way of women gaining that power. Thus Jonathan Rosenbaum's observation that [Safe] exceeds plausibility seems, finally, to miss the point, since the film is so clearly working at a symbolic level to dramatize the excessively brutal, the utterly eviscerating, emptiness that constitutes Carol White's environment.12
In his generally insightful reading of [Safe] in Movies as Politics, Jonathan Rosenbaum alludes to "Haynes's southern Californian posthumanism—no doubt inflected by one's distance from other people on the freeway and in Sherman Oaks living rooms"(Rosenbaum, 212). Indeed, Todd Haynes, with his long shots of domestic space, point-of-view driving shots, use of deep focus, and emphasis on walls and other objects as physical markers of separation and dissociation, seems much more interested in portraying an alien social environment than the psychology of the individuals that inhabit it. Still, I do not agree with Rosenbaum that the movie is brutal because of its ending, which viewers most likely see as nihilist if they do not see it as happy or ameliorative. I think the movie may qualify as posthumanist, but posthumanist in the only way in which that term might be meaningful as a tool of social critique, a tool of change: not as a reflection of the text's play with notions of the death of the human (or humanist) subject, but as a politicized critique of society's marriage to structures that define our experience at the expense of the very many people who fall outside these normative categories, not only because of their sex, sexual orientation, race, or class, but because they dare to question, in whatever fragmented way their minds and bodies will allow them to do, the cultural assumptions that underlie these normative categories.
While it may seem as if Haynes implies that the culture offers no solution to those, especially women, who are thoroughly acculturated into their social roles, the film aggressively suggests, as Gilman's story did a little more than one hundred years earlier, that these individuals' illnesses and their attempts to cure themselves—through false consciousness, through imagination, through empty new-age self-help mottos, all leading eventually and inevitably to the trouble with Carol and forms of madness—are symptoms of profound social illness. Thus, Haynes, in politically engaged and aesthetically elegant commentary, argues against the cult of enlightenment American individualism, which seems a horribly apolitical evasion of institutionalized repression.
1. I came to this conclusion independently of Gaye Naismith, whose fine essay on Haynes's film also references "The Yellow Wallpaper" and explores the meaning of environmental illness in Haynes's film and the culture at large.
2. For this reason, I think that the parallels Roddey Reid draws between Emma Bovary and Carol White are somewhat misleading. On one level, the comparison does help to underscore an idea of women rebelling against oppressive cultural surroundings: "Like her predecessor, White discovers to her distress that her body and then her mind no longer fit her environment...and has few means at her disposal to articulate her predicament" (Reid, 36). And yet, while Flaubert's emphasis is more explicitly placed on Emma Bovary's flawed perspective (rather than the anti-feminist society she rebels against), [Safe] seems primarily invested in a feminist critique of the poisonous social environments depicted in the film. Madame Bovary is ultimately more critical of Emma's romanticism—despite Flaubert's famous articulation of his "ressemblance" to Emma—than Haynes is critical of Carol's impotence. The tone of Bovary, in the end, judges Emma's individual foolishness whereas [Safe] despairs—as "The Yellow Wallpaper" does—over the failure of social systems to nourish and protect those trapped or vulnerable within them.
3. See Edward O'Neill's excellent essay on Poison, which argues that Haynes's "subject is how identity is constructed by discourses and institutions—including the cinema—this includes both what is represented in the film and the very diversity of cinematic styles mobilized by the film..." (18).
4. See Richard Dyer's fascinating discussion of "white" in The Matter of Images: "This property of whiteness, to be everything and nothing, is the source of its representational power" (142).
5. Roddey Reid explains the failure of scientific models in [Safe] as Haynes's exploration of "regimes of visibility": "[Safe] plays with our need to see and to know illness and, consequently, with our desire to name health threats, erect barriers, eliminate vulnerabilities, and 'other' the sick and the potentially ill" (40).
6. See Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Stupidity as Redemption" [Forrest Gump], in Movies as Politics, 166-70.
7. Quoted in Rosenbaum, "The Functions of a Disease," in Movies as Politics, 208-212: 212.
8. See Naismith: "The brackets that enclose the word "safe" in the film's title point to the way Carol seeks to secure a sense of identity by conforming to the roles expected of her within such closed systems as patriarchy, medicine, and alternative therapies—discourses that seemingly offer orderly, rational, and complete answers" (363).
9. Reid, 37; Janet Maslin, "Life of a Hollow Woman," New York Times, 23 June 1995, sec. C. Maslin misreads the film's Wrenwood scenes when she says that "Mr. Haynes makes fools of these New Agers while possibly embracing some of their views." As the film and Haynes's comments demonstrate, [Safe] ultimately wants us not only to sympathize with Carol, whose "process of figuring out who she is," says Haynes, "gives us a sense of how to care about her" (Schorr, 88), but also to strongly criticize the exploitative New-Age institution that works her over merely in a different manner and language from the way she has been guided by the values associated with upper-class affluence.
10. See, for example Susan Faludi's essay in Newsweek called "Don't Get the Wrong Message" (8 Jan. 2001: 56), which comments on the misguided and, for Faludi, "deeply antifeminist" cultural habit of reading women's well-being or happiness as a "product" or function of contemporary consumer culture; see, also, Francine Prose's provocative essay in New York Times Magazine called "A Wasteland of One's Own" (13 Feb. 2000: 56), an excellent critique of "women's culture" and its limits in promoting feminisms; or Tania Modleski's very fine Feminism Without Women: Culture and Criticism in a 'Postfeminist' Age (New York: Routledge, 1991), which explores some of the ways in which recent appropriations of feminism aren't primarily concerned with the lives of women.
11. See, for example, Naismith's essay: "I do not believe that Haynes wishes to completely dismiss the ideology of New-Age movement. Rather, he wants to show how a familiar rhetoric can be employed not as a progressive alternative to the world, as we might imagine, but as a retrograde reinforcement of such beliefs" (374-75). I maintain that Haynes's attack on New-Age self-determination—in fact in keeping with Naismith's latter remarks—is visceral and far reaching.
12. Rosenbaum quotes a filmmaker friend who "champions" [Safe] but says of Carol White, "Nobody is that empty" (210).
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Julie Grossman received her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. She currently serves as Chair of the Dept. of English at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. Her areas of specialization are Victorian Literature and Film, Womens' Studies and Feminst Theory. Her recent work includes A Due Voci: The Photography of Rita Hammond, edited with Kim Waale and Ann Ryan (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2003).