Genders, Perceptions, and Identity in Spielberg and DePalma

Who are we? It remains one of the defining questions of humankind. Our ability to think and be conscious of ourselves as human beings is what separates men and women from animals. However, as film makers, it is in some sense expected of us to define ourselves through our writing, our choices, and our films. Some directors, such as Brian Depalma, have a strong reaction to the identity forced upon them by their parents or other relatives and that is what essentially defines them. This reaction, this instinct to rebel against everything he’s known, is what helps to define Depalma in his films. Others, such as Steven Spielberg, come from a place of not knowing who they are and, gradually, as they discover, they use their films to establish an identity. Although Depalma comes from a place of knowing too well where he came from, Spielberg is just the opposite. While Spielberg uses his films to define himself and the male figure, Depalma uses his to rebel and explore other identities, in particular the female identity, in both of these directors films through the 1970s and 1980s.
Spielberg’s sense of identity, or rather lack thereof, was firmly established at a young age. The life-defining event that most film scholars cite when examining Spielberg’s work is his lack of a male presence in his life. At a young age his father, Arnold, left his mother and abandoned the family. This helps to understand the father figures in most of his films or even lack of a father figure as seen in E.T. as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark. In E.T. particularly, we see a powerful motivation in Elliott, due to the lack of his father’s presence, that seems very relevant to Spielberg. Just one example of such is the very relationship of Elliott and E.T. This alien offers Elliott more of a father figure than actual human contact ever did. Through this extra-terrestrial, Elliott in some ways learns to become a man and even how to love and express such emotion, things that in this day and age, are generally expected of a father to do. We also see the lack of a father figure as an important aspect in the film world of the movie. For instance, towards the end when the police are questioning his mother about why Elliott may have run away. She explains that his father left them only recently so the resentment of the split is still a powerful force in his life.
However, we also see how the lack of a father figure has affected Spielberg’s perceptions of what it means to be a man as illustrated in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones is the quintessential male action hero and as such, is seen as being not only a man of great physical abilities, but of intelligence and good looks to boot. Although at no point does Spielberg label these as necessities of a man, he recognizes and in many ways, addresses Indiana Jones as the ideal male. One of the most interesting qualities he assigns to Indiana is his interaction with women. He seems to have the typical male fondness for them, yet treats them with a stunning lack of respect. It’s almost as if women had been held up on this pedestal as goddesses worthy of worship, but Spielberg dared to take them down by bringing them to reality. Once again, this is more than likely due to Spielberg’s own experiences. As the son of a single mother and the oldest of four, with three younger sisters, women could easily have lost their magic, which is what warrants this treatment of women in Raiders. However, Spielberg does romanticize them to a certain degree, just in a very different manner. He gives them a strength that is rarely seen in women in films. Marion is even able to outdrink every man that she encounters. While this is traditionally very unlady-like, it shows the strength and even in some ways, the manliness of this female character. Spielberg may have seen the reality of women which leads to his sometimes less than feminine portrayal, but he also saw the strength of women in his mother, leading to a very complex portrayal of male and female dynamics that we see in the first Indiana Jones film, representative of Spielberg’s own mixed feelings on what it means to be a man in addition to the strength of women.
Another film saw the mixed feelings of Spielberg in 1979. The film 1941, both critically and commercially a flop, deals with the hysteria surrounding Hollywood in the days following Pearl Harbor. It is in many ways criticizing the glorification of Hollywood, that Americans as well as foreigners place so much emphasis on the Hollywood system that one could easily mistake it for the capital of the U.S. with all the attention it gets. This is the very premise of the film which pits a Japanese submarine off the coast of Hollywood, planning an attack which would supposedly cripple the United States. Although not well received, this is perhaps one of Spielberg’s most personal films. Single-handedly developing the summer blockbuster with his film Jaws, he was a large force in revitalizing Hollywood. In a way, 1941 is a film made by Spielberg for Spielberg himself, asking himself “What have I created in reviving this system?” However, the movie was in some ways made at the public’s expense which Spielberg had been so eager to please in earlier years, and a sensibility which would come back to him after the abysmal failure of 1941.
While the public is something Spielberg dealt with a great deal in identifying himself, Brian Depalma took a very different route. His films, such as Carrie and Scarface, although garnering some commercial appeal (Scarface’s success not being as immediate as Carrie’s) didn’t rely on the public, they were more personal and less crowd pleasing. In comparison, Brian Depalma’s films are far more experimental than those of Spielberg at the time. Where Spielberg stuck with what he knew, Depalma pushed both audiences and himself out of their comfort zones by exploring the female identity as he understood it.
Although not his first foray into female territory, Carrie is his commercial success that finally got people paying attention to his films. In some ways, it’s fitting that it’s what first brought his perception of the female to the public’s eye as it deals with Carrie, a young girl as she becomes a woman. One of the first scenes of the film takes place in the women’s locker room as Carrie gets her first period. As she shrieks in pain, the other girls assault her with tampons, refusing to help her but rather taking the opportunity to revel in her pain. An interesting dynamic in this movie is that although it is a horror film, it is never entirely clear who is the true horror in Depalma’s eyes, Carrie and her telekinetic powers or her tormentors. On a subtextual level, it is a statement on all human cruelty, but the relationships between the women, both Carrie and her schoolmates as well as Carrie and her mother, are perhaps the most brutal. One of the most noticeable aspects of the film is the immediate demonization, by other girls, of Carrie’s blossoming sexuality. For instance, in the scene in the bathroom when Carrie becomes a woman, she is assaulted. In a way, Depalma seems to be suggesting that her classmates have already experienced the pain and almost seem to have been hardened by it. It’s almost as if this rite of passage is his idea of the key as to what makes these girls so evil. Even after Carrie experiences her period, this is when audiences may perceive her descent into “evil”. Her sexualization and in turn, her journey into womanhood is the first thing we see, but it is her use of telekinetic powers to slaughter most everyone at the prom that is one of her final acts and one of the most memorable ones. Even when her mother finds out, she associates it with some sort of sin, Carrie’s being punished. This also stems from her mother’s own past, having a baby out of wedlock and her husband in turn leaving her. Another example of how we see sexualization as the key to downfall. It doesn’t seem that Depalma is agreeing with this perception, but rather, he’s saying that elements in his life such as religion led to this idea that the female body is an object of shame. In other films, and even in male characters, the female figure is worshipped whereas the women in this film are far from accepting of it and even in some instances, downright shameful or hateful of it.
However, Depalma also experiments with the effect the male identity has on that of the female. One such example is Tony Montana in his film Scarface who, although a strong male lead, is constantly supported and in some instances strengthened by the women in his life. Although in many ways Depalma praises the female body and allows some of his characters to do as such, he also recognizes the harmful effects that the ever present male gaze have on the female psyche. One interesting case is the character of Tony’s wife, Elvira. She begins as a beautiful young thing who could get anything she wants, but by the end, she is withered up, in essence a hollow shell, never able to realize her full potential now that Tony has stolen all of the best years of her life. In Elvira’s appearance the audience is shown a physical manifestation of what Tony’s ambition, which is essentially the male need to be superior, has done to Elvira and the effect it has on the female identity. Since she has lost her beauty, she has been stripped off her only power in a male-dominated world. Another example in Scarface is Tony’s sister, Gina. It is illustrated in the final scene when Gina barges into Tony’s office with a gun and is consequently killed, another example of how male desires wreak havoc on the female. Although the drug life is far from glorified, Tony is seen as obtaining just about everything he’s ever wanted. However, all the money in the world would not buy him the one thing that he wants most and that was his own sister’s flesh. When she is confronted by the idea that her brother loves her, she demands answers. Nevertheless, Tony’s subconscious male desires and insecurities, such as the need for power, have at this point led him to make some enemies. When Gina storms in and begins firing off rounds, one of Tony’s enemies sees this as provocation and begins firing back, killing Gina. It is her presence in Tony’s life that in the end leads to her downfall as she becomes yet another victim of Tony Montana’s dreams.
Both Spielberg’s perception of manhood and Depalma’s ideas of the female identity have shaped their ways of movie-making for years and will, undoubtedly, continue to do so. Whether questioning male and female dynamics as Spielberg did in Raiders or even commenting on female relationships like Depalma in Carrie, both these filmmakers have shown an implicit understanding of both identities. Although Spielberg came from a place of not knowing enough, he has worked towards discovery throughout his films. Even Depalma’s sometimes misogynistic portrayal of women is, in some sense, an effort to understand them. In conclusion, both Spielberg and Depalma seem fairly certain of who they are in a world that demands that of them both commercially, as in Spielberg’s case and cinematically, as in Depalma’s.


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