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Gabbard, K. Gabbard, L.O. (1993). Phallic Women in the Contemporary Cinema. Am. Imago, 50(4):421-439.

(1993). American Imago, 50(4):421-439

Phallic Women in the Contemporary Cinema

Krin Gabbard and Len O. Gabbard

The critic Georgia Brown (1990) has recently observed that if the old formula for terror in movies was a woman alone pursued by a berserk man, the new formula is a harmless man terrorized by a crazed woman. Brown characterizes the 1990 film Misery—in which an immobilized James Caan is at the mercy of a powerful and looming Kathy Bates—as “Rear Window with James Stewart in the same room with Raymond Burr in drag.” On the one hand, the violent phallic woman in Misery can be understood as one more manifestation of the “backlash” against the various feminisms of the recent past (Faludi 1991): women who stray from traditional female roles— or pervert these roles like Bates's character in Misery—are increasingly likely to take monstrous forms in Hollywood movies. So long as a woman's assumption of power is widely regarded as aberrant, America's entertainment industries will continue to capitalize on collective fantasies that are widely forbidden and hence profitably displaced into the narrative of a film. On the other hand, Hollywood has produced a dazzling variety of what we are calling, for want of a better term, “phallic women.” Many of these characters are presented as something other than monstrous, and some appear in narratives that do not speak directly to feminist issues, pro or con. Regardless of how popular cinema presents phallic women, psychoanalysis provides a means for understanding the developmental, political, and cultural forces that lie behind this trend. Specifically, we would argue that psychoanalytically derived techniques of dream interpretation can be read into a cultural criticism of Hollywood's commodified fantasies. The omnipresent image of the phallic woman in recent cinema is surely an over-determined phenomenon, one that speaks to a variety of anxieties and fantasies, some more clearly articulated than others.

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