The Morality & Ethics of Female Representation in ‘Casablanca’

Film is recognized for its ability to convey plot and more importantly emotion through the world of the visual. However, it must be recognized as having its limitations as well. One hindrance in film is that it is unable to leave behind the real world. While it does its best to transport the viewer to a world of its own, it frequently references the social, cultural, and moral values of the society which produces it. One film in particular that does this is the 1942 classic film, Casablanca. While it does its best to portray a stalwart moral certainty in a world of ethical shades of gray, it is not without its faults due to the time of its production. While, here in the 21st century, we take issues, particularly that of women’s rights, as givens, films like Casablanca illustrate that this was not always the case. Specifically, in regards to the character of Ilsa and her interaction with the male figures of Casablanca, the film lacks conviction. Ilsa’s interaction with protagonist Rick, and her husband, Victor, illustrates the attitudes towards women at the time of the film’s production. Casablanca is in many ways a character piece, as an audience it is recognized that, as Rick himself says, their personal history is insignificant in the reality of the film. However as a spectator with hindsight, the representation of these characters should be recognized as very important.
While many view Casablanca as one of the greatest love stories caught on film, the dynamic between Ilsa and legendary anti-hero Rick seems suspect. Their entire relationship seems, in many ways, to be founded on the power dynamics of the relationship. For example, as the audience sees in the flashback, back in Paris, Ilsa was the one who left Rick. So much of Rick’s inability to get over Ilsa is grounded in the fact that she left him. This is not to suggest that Rick’s fascination with Ilsa and his forcing her to leave at the film’s end is a vindictive act, but that it is done to re-assert the virility of the male character. For most of the film, Rick seems to be a shell of a man, especially when his past acts of bravery are so frequently cited throughout the film. By being the one to push Ilsa away at the end and sacrifice his personal happiness, Rick becomes a martyr in the eyes of the audience and more importantly, a fully realized man’s man in a time of great desperation. Furthermore, although Ilsa does truly believe that Victor died in a concentration camp before embarking on her whirlwind romance with Rick, she finds out that Victor is alive and neglects to tell Rick that this is why she must leave him. Her secrecy seems very calculated. This could be due to personal life experiences of her own or mine as the viewer, but it seems difficult to believe that their love is an all consuming one as is frequently suggested. Rather it is one based on control and manipulation. Even when Ilsa returns in Rick’s life, her first act is to have Sam play As Time Goes By, due to the memories associated with the song. She shows little regard for Rick’s well-being in choosing that song even when Sam tells her that he should not play it. It clearly demonstrates that even now, as a fugitive, she is still in a position of power over Rick. Many of her choices show little regard for moral purity or even anyone but herself. As a result, Rick is seen for the majority of the film as a pawn of Ilsa’s and it is only when he realizes he must turn his back on her for the greater good that Rick is seen as a true man.
While Ilsa reduces Rick to a victim, Victor is treated very differently. Ilsa and many of the other members of the film canonize him. In one of the most memorable scenes of the film, it is Victor who leads the patrons in a rousting version of the French national anthem, directly and visibly challenging the authority of Major Strasser. However, an interesting aspect of their relationship, as one person said during the discussion of the film, Victor is seen as very non-threatening. Even though he is supposed to be seen as an integral part of the film’s love triangle, he contributes little in the way of any genuine emotional substance. The film opts to make Ilsa’s clearly physical relationship with Rick as the seemingly obvious choice by showing little physical interaction between husband and wife. In fact, the relationship between Ilsa and Victor is seen as non-sexual, as if his interest in the movement is his love. Although Rick references Ilsa as “the thing that keeps him going”, there is little evidence to demonstrate this. Rather, Victor seems to be a character entirely used to demonstrate Ilsa’s weakness. Here we have a man who has suffered through a concentration camp because he so firmly believes in the cause for which he is fighting. Ilsa crumbles under the pressure. She is willing to sell out her own husband for the “man she loves”. The audience is shown Ilsa as a victim of her own “womanly ways”. While Victor has a cause that he is even willing to die for and Rick is willing to turn his back on love for the success of the movement, she is a slave to her emotions. Although, as an audience, it is understandable since the passion between Ilsa and Rick is so much more palpable, it is also worth noting that she is the only one in the film’s conclusion who acts selfishly.
Although the film’s focus is on the love triangle between Ilsa, Rick, and Victor, the audience is shown very capable and moral figures with the men in question. Ilsa’s actions waiver between altruistic and egoist, but in the film’s end, when it really counts, Ilsa’s desire to behave egoistically is only overridden by Rick’s altruism. Ilsa is seen as somewhat manipulative and worse yet, unreliable. While many may argue that Casablanca is a love story hidden within a war story, there is little to reflect any real love. The importance of power in her relationship with Rick is undeniable. However, it also must be recognized that this film is a product of its times. Women were rarely valued and frequently depicted as slaves of their “irrational emotions”. Casablanca is no better nor is it any worse in its treatment of Ilsa in relation to the characters of Rick and Victor, but it must be recognized that even with this film’s beautiful female lead, there remained progress to be made in film’s representation of women at the time.

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2 thoughts on “The Morality & Ethics of Female Representation in ‘Casablanca’

  1. I just saw the movie for the first time and I was really turned off by Ilsa when I realized what kind of character she actually is. So, I started searching for other opinions about this topic and found your article, which is very well written and reflects my thoughts as well. Thanks 🙂

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