THE SPACE OF WOMEN – Sexuality and Space in Film

By aRchie  -  On 11 Dec, 1998 -  0 comments

1. Male Space vs. Female Space
We can interpret space as sexual metaphor as well as interpret social relationship as spacial metaphor, because the space of social behavior is not filled up with the same rate of both the two sexes and rather because there are various specific spaces which are exclusive to the opposite sex. The sexual discrimination which the feminism has pointed out can be observed in terms of the use of spaces. For example, in Korea, people often use the term outside person for husband and house-person for wife. And it is still the most usual territory division that male spaces are placed open outside and female spaces inside. In addition, patriarchism has given rise to the spacial discrimination of female(periphery) and male (center) even indoor spaces.(fig 1. M.C.Escher ‘Up & Down’ 1947)

Such a sexual space division in common life is shown in most films. For example, Chantal Akerman,1975 represents awfully repetitive and typical daily life through a housewife who are under restraint in the space named family. The camera gazes at the object at the fixed place as the actress repeats the same things at the same space. She cooks the breakfast in the morning, makes the table, wake up her son, washes dishes, goes to market, cleans rooms, cooks dinner, has dinner with her son and goes to sleep, and so on. The shots taken with long-take can be felt like the real life. Even her prostitution in the afternoon is expressed as another kind of chores rather than deviation. A man comes in, she takes his clothes, goes to bed, takes a shower, cleans the bathroom and then makes up bed after the short sex. These repetitive acts are the documentary without any emotion. Her life except the prostitution shows how indoor space of a house restricts and confines the female territory, although it should be a shelter.

It is clear that female space is hermetic in the Korean traditional space organization, because the positional and sexual division or discrimination have resulted from patriarchism. It is the male, who has spacial activities, that is shown in traditional landscape paintings which emphasize the combination between human beings and the nature. Huge entrance gates and hugh fences which isolate the house from the world could be regarded as sexual partitions(called Nae-oe內外dam meaning Inside-outside wall) in middle class houses. Female outdoor spaces which are explicit in the Chosun Dynasty landscape paintings are the extended spaces of chores like laundry places or water well. On the contrary, critical place in politics and society are represented as male space. The transition of living spaces especially in terms of modernized housing has led to more division in private spaces. Moreover it results in spacial definement of female because it makes most households possible to occur indoor. Most female images in commercial ads show indoor space like kitchen which is one of the main households places but describes the physical suffering and mental detention as fantasy.

Fig. 2. Nae-oe內外 Dam and Enclosed Space used by Women in Traditional House Hae-nam, Korea, Chosun Dynasty

It is the melodrama among film genres that such female(housewife) spaces are the nucleus background. Especially many melodramas which has the background of bourgeoisie family play a key role in attracting women by representing the hermetic household space as comfort and splendid. Korean marriage custom which husband buys a house and wife buys households seems to premise that wife is included in the properties. And women who stay home (means they don’t work) after marriage is the typical image in most Korean melodramas.
Although one heroine in the movie ‘301.302’ Kwangsoo Park, Korea, 1995 is divorced and the other single, all their spaces are confined to a kitchen and a reading room. These hermitic spaces represent the situation of most Korean women who stay isolated from the outside. In addition even inthe women whose spaces are occupied by men, is driven out to hermitic spaces like restrooms in public buildings. (fig 3. Scenes from ‘301?302’)

‘Thelma and Louise'(1991) is the movie that women who are restricted in terms of space get out of the hermitic spaces and thread through the extended territory outside. This movie is classified in road movies in terms that the story is based on the journey of two heroines by car. And it also has the typical elements – escape and chase – of most American road movies which combine with gangster genre; Thelma and Louise murder their rapist to run away and the police keep chasing them. But shows the sisterhood and female adventure instead of reusing the conventions of usual road movies contrary to typical road movies .

Road is the space which connects cities and countries in the vast America. As the origin of road movies reflect the Western settlement history, this road is still vacant space where would be the last place to be cultivated. From Nicolas Ray,1948 to recent movies by directed David Lynch or Jim Jamush, highway journeys have been male and road movies are needed male-oriented narrative with male heros’ lives. When a sexually attractive woman joins the journey, her character is supposed to be danger and violence instead of pleasure. (For example, women in Jeseph H. Lewis,1949, Arthur Penn,1967, etc play roles in catalyzing psychic violence. When a woman goes to travel by herself, she becomes a victim of violence in or she plays a hitchhiker who has an abnormal thumb in Gus van Sant,1993

3. Thelma and Louise / Ridley Scott / 1991
What the vast and magnificent nature is controled and possessed by male in Dennis Hopper,1969, what the landscape of Western highway from Arkansas to Mexico through Oklahoma is seized as the background by female in . The very first scene of the movie is vacant straight highway as it waits for the heroines who are coming up. And the movie starts at the usual female living space. LouiseSusan Sarandon is in a restaurant as a waitress, and ThelmaGeena Davis is in the kitchen as a middle-class housewife cleaning the table and helping her husband, DarrylChristopher McDonald.
But when Thelma and Louise run away through the highway after they commit unintentional murder, Thelma’s husband and the police are confined in the house waiting for her call. They watch old melodrama or take a look at magazines as Thelma probably does in ordinaries. It is interesting that Thelma’s crime results in role-switch between Thelma and Darryl; Thelma is outside and Darryl is inside, and he loses his power or authority which he used to have over Thelma, with the existence of the police. The cliff where they face to at the end of the chase is the last road, an inevitable and gorgeous Grand Canyon. Thelma says “Let’s not get caught. Let’s keep going.” The movie ends at the scene the car in the sky. This last scene is the confidence on the space exploited by female against the overwhelmingly male world at the same time against the male right on the western territory which is kept since the western movies of the director John Ford. The endless open space, land and the sky which are seen by female view for the first time represent the space free from sexual discrimination.

Most episodes Thelma and Louise have had on the road are resists against the spaces dominated by white male by the last moment of their freedom since they dare to go into the western male territory. The requisites – car, gun – on the highway are the symbols of the male power and their freedom of activity. However, breaks down the social convention that those symbols are the only male possession. That is, when women possess the symbols, they can have the same power and activity as men have.

shows the metaphor of geographical and social spaces vs. authority and sexual discrimination. The Western in this movie is described as female space where women can behave progressively and actively against the patriarchaec organization in the future.

4. Piano / Jane Campion / 1993
While chooses male-regarded behavior, the violence and the death to locate themselves in the space where has the male background in the past, Jane Campion creates feminist (or rather feminine) space in the harmony of the nature and the female in the movie . The former struggles in the view of western and male occupation of space. On the contrary, the latter enjoy the freedom and the female spaces of the land and the sea, which represents feminist spaces, out of oppressed indoor.

A mute Scottish woman named AdaHolly Hunter who at age six stopped speaking; she can hear, she can understand, she has no physiological speech impairment, but for whatever psychological reasons she does not speak. Her one means of self expression is to pour out her feelings on her piano which she does so eloquently she hardly seems to be silent.

She gets an arranged marriage to Mr. StewartSam Neill a European trying to establish a plantation with Maori labor in a wild and inhospitable area of New Zealand. There are, however, not enough men to carry everything to the remote homestead where they are to live when they arrives there, so the piano is left behind. Since the new husband doesn’t understand the significance of piano for his wife.

But an illiterate Englishman named BainesHarvey Keitel who has “gone native,” complete with facial tattoos, and lives among the Maori, takes the piano to her and realizes how essential the piano is to her very being.
Baines opens her mind and awakes her emotion not only because he understands the relationship between Ada and her piano but also because he has different attitude to the nature from Stewart’s. The nature is an ‘object’ to be occupied and possessed to Stewart, so Ada, ‘female as a part of the nature’ is also one of objects. Stewart is the symbol of patriarch who appeal the control and command to his belongings by the power and authority and represents the imperialism male who destroy the nature and maltreat the natives with the name of development and innovation. On the contrary, Baines doesn’t treat female as an object but tries to understand the woman’s emotion and learn her language.

The reason Ada chooses Baines and rejects the bourgeois family of Stewart is the freedom from Baines’ hut – the nature. So he looks comfortable in feminine space.

While acquires feminist space by confronting male and excluding discriminate male, feminist (rather feminine) space in represents the space which has the inclinations that has been regarded feminist from the past rather the space for the only female; the space not to occupy the nature but to get unity with the nature as a part of it like relationship between the nature and human beings in eastern landscape paintings. In other words, insists on occupying -male way- space by ways of confronting patriarchism that deny female as a part of the nature and make female objectives in it. But creates feminine space in natural way in open spaces.
The difference between these two movies, that the one shows political feminism and the other shows romantic and liberal femininity, suggests that feminist space should be open to coexist diversity rather be fragmentary or totalitarian as male spaces have been.?

    (written by aRchie / translated by yroh & aRchie. 1998)