Thursday Thinkpiece: Schulz & Youn on Women Lawyers in Film

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Monsters & Madwomen? Neurosis, Ambition and Mothering in Women Lawyers in Film
Forthcoming in Law, Culture and Humanities (2016)

Dr. Jennifer L. Schulz is an Associate Professor at the University of Manitoba Faculty of Law and co-author of A Transnational Study of Law and Justice on TV. JiHyun Youn was a 3L in the Faculty of Law, University of Manitoba at the time she co-authored this paper, and is currently an articling student at Tom Rees Law Office in Winnipeg.

Excerpts: Introduction and Gilbert & Gubar; Reconfiguring the Madwoman (pp 1-9, 21-23)
[Footnotes omitted. They can be found in the original via the link above]

Introduction and Gilbert & Gubar

The cliché of the “evil lawyer” has such traction in the popular imagination that, in some ways, popular culture seems to be haunted by “madwomen and monsters.” There is an expansive body of scholarly work that interrogates cultural representations of evil or morally ambiguous lawyers, but our line of inquiry in this article will trace the metaphor of the female madwoman or monster as it circulates within representations of women lawyers in popular film. To this end, we engage with the writings of feminist scholars Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, whose landmark work, The Madwoman in the Attic, critiques the image of the female monster as a creation of the male-dominated Western literary canon.

Gilbert and Gubar’s principle argument is that the image of the female monster describes powerful women who reject male authority and its prescriptions of feminine docility, silence, and submission. The construction and cultural deployment of female monstrosity is, at its heart, a project of subjugation that seeks to immobilize women of ambition and intellect, and leave them bereft of purpose, inner lives, and ultimately, power. Our reading of law films through the literary metaphor of monstrosity is a calculated maneuver–legal discourses and cultural representations of monstrosity share a preoccupation with questions of knowledge and power. Although Gilbert and Gubar concentrate their analysis on representations of madwomen and monster-women found in classical literature (much of which pre-dates the emergence of popular film), we submit that literature is a foundational antecedent to popular culture writ large, and thus provides fertile ground for exploring the origins of female madwomen and monsters and how they function as a narrative strategy in popular films about women lawyers.

Our goals for this article are three-fold:

1) To explore the ways in which popular films featuring female lawyers channel the “madwoman/monster” metaphor;
2) To trace “monstrous” female filmic characters in terms of neuroses, ambition, and motherhood; and
3) To argue for the possibility of reconfiguring the notion of “madwoman”as a valid and meaningful mode of female subjectivity that expands the field of possibilities for women lawyers.

We use Gilbert and Gubar’s thesis of the female monster as the primary analytical framework for excavating three variants of female madness as depicted in three films: madness as neurosis in Laws of Attraction; monstrosity as ambition in Michael Clayton; and madness/monstrosity as failed motherhood in I Am Sam. We note that the women lawyers depicted in each of these three films are professionally successful, white, able-bodied and heterosexual, and as such, do not represent the diversity of women lawyers in practice. We will nonetheless examine each trope of monstrosity in relation to the challenges of legal practice experienced by women. This will demonstrate that popular film refracts certain societal truths about the conditions under which women are deemed “successful”and ways we might challenge those so-called truths.

The films we chose are only three of many films that depict women lawyers. We chose them because we were struck by the similarity of two scenes in Law of Attraction and Michael Clayton. Both films feature strong, successful women lawyers suffering anxiety attacks in bathroom stalls. They are completely different films–the first a light romantic comedy and the second a dark Oscar-winning film–and yet they depict women lawyers similarly. Audrey Woods in Laws of Attraction and Karen Crowder in Michael Clayton are both ambitious, successful and neurotic. As we thought about how often ambitious women are more negatively construed than ambitious men, and how successful women, especially in film, need a “failing” of some sort to compensate for their success, we discussed how that failing, as previously noted by Corcos and Lucia, is usually a failing in their personal lives. In other words, ambitious female lawyers who are successful usually have dismal personal lives. This reminded us of the lawyer Rita Harrison in the film I am Sam, because although very successful professionally, her personal life is abysmal. (Karen Crowder has no personal life at all). While successful male lawyers in film who are absent fathers are not depicted as failures, Rita is a failure because she is so often working and away from her child. In this way, our film choices were made.

Just as we could have chosen other films, so too could we have chosen other indicators of female monstrosity. However, neurosis, ambition, and mothering resonated with us personally, are heard frequently anecdotally, and are richly documented in the literature. As such, our focus is on these three prevalent examples of women lawyers’ failings–“she is neurotic”, “too ambitious”, or a “bad mother.” Future research could certainly use other films to highlight other instances of female monstrosity or madness. Importantly, we note that women and men lawyers are differentially monstered. Neither the ample Law & Film literature nor law films depict male lawyers as neurotic. Ambition is highly valued in male lawyers and indeed in men generally, and “bad fathering” is a phrase that is very rarely encountered. Indeed, fathers are lauded for doing parenting tasks that are routinely expected from mothers. Quite simply, ambition and bad parenting are not considered indicia of male lawyer monstrosity, but they are of women lawyers. Finally, we must be clear that our use of the terms “monster” and“madwoman” comes directly from Gilbert and Gubar. We are not doing a study of the monster genre of films nor are we connecting or distinguishing the terms “monsters” and “madwomen” as they have been understood by feminists and others over time. Rather, our use of the terms reflects Gilbert and Gubar’s usage.

The terms “monster” and “madwoman” are semantically similar in that they both constitute the language of misogyny designed to denigrate women who rebel against the “strictures of patriarchal society.” There is a key distinction between the two terms, however. As Gilbert and Gubar explain, female “madness” in literature often describes a condition of internal disconnect between opposing desires, where as a woman’s “monstrous” impulses threaten to overtake her “angelic” leanings. Using Mary Elizabeth Coleridge’s poem “The Other Side of a Mirror” as an example, Gilbert and Gubar demonstrate that “the literary [mad]woman frequently finds herself staring with horror at a fearful image of herself that has been mysteriously inscribed on the surface of the glass.” Gilbert and Gubar then proceed to argue that the madwoman trope of English literature may be re-read as the woman’s quest for self-definition. In this article, we too argue that the madwomen lawyers in Laws of Attraction, Michael Clayton, and I am Sam can be re-read as women seeking themselves. Each can unify herself “by coming to terms with her own fragmentation”–that is, the historically male-authored bifurcation between the docile “angel” and her twin “monster.” Gilbert and Gubar pronounce that women must kill the “angel in the house” and her “necessary opposite and double, the monster in the house” in order to transcend those images. We wish to reconceptualize Gilbert and Gubar’s madwoman by suggesting that when the angel and the monster have been vanquished, a powerful, independent, new “madwoman” remains. It is this madwoman that may be able to transcend the angel and monster images. And, we argue, today’s lawyers might embrace her. It is this reinterpreted madwoman that we wish to reconfigure here.

A discussion of female madness or monstrosity in lawyer films necessitates an exploration of the links between madness, monstrosity, gender, and legal discourse. Elizabeth Comack observes that law tends to posit itself as an “autonomous, internally consistent system, divorced from the more political processes of the state,”and as such, “promotes an image of itself as fair, dispassionate, disinterested, and–above all–as just.” This understanding of legal objectivity has its origins in what is, in fact, a gendered ordering of knowledge. The Western conceptualization of rationality descends from the ancient Greeks’ binary understanding of reason as disembodied, in contradistinction to emotion as embodied–this can be understood as the mind/body dualism, famously articulated by Descartes. Western modes of rationality and reasoning derive from ancient Greek notions of the mind/body, nature/culture, male/female dichotomies, with each element within the binary standing in categorical opposition to the other. In all of these binaries–rationality/physicality, male/female, culture/nature, object/subject–the first word: rationality =male = culture = subject is superior to the second word: physicality/body = female = nature = object. The body is precisely that which rationality aims to transcend and defy–the body is externalized, feminized, and construed as an object within “nature” waiting to be observed, controlled, and manipulated. E.F. Keller writes:

Having divided the world into two parts–the knower (mind) and the knowable (nature)–Western scientific ideology goes on to prescribe a very specific relation between the two … Not only are mind and nature assigned gender, but in characterising scientific, objective thought as masculine, the very activity by which the knower can acquire knowledge is also genderised.

In short, culture’s valorization of the mind over the body–of reason over embodiment–is irreducibly gendered. And, the cultural construction of female madness is an attempt to position women as outsiders to rational discourse: “all body, no brain.”

One of the discourses of rationality that women are placed outside of, is of course law. The construction of law as the neutral, objective, arbiter of social conflicts is, in fact, a gendered construction. The law is not objective in the common understanding of the word. Rather, “objective” has traditionally connoted the superiority of the male perspective. Patriarchy’s construction of women as outsiders to rationality “made sense” because male-controlled institutions such as the law deliberately conflated the feminine with irrationality and enslavement to the body.Women and monsters are both constructed as being enslaved to their bodies. Monsters are creatures that are all body, no brain–they are the pop cultural watermark of embodied, purely physical, flesh-obsessed mindlessness that can be found in, for instance, the werewolf losing control of his body and mind at a full moon, the vampire’s obsession with human blood, or the zombie’s relentless pursuit of human brains. The female monster is similar, but less flesh-obsessed, ostensibly because she, as both a monster and a woman, is already doubly fleshed. The female monster metaphor proposes the total embodiedness of women’s identities at the expense of their inner intellectual lives. In other words, popular culture’s continued mobilization of the monster metaphor, as applied to woman, signals a broader project where in women continue to be excised from the spheres of rationality and reason, and from the practise of law itself.

In this article we hope to identify the ways in which the “monstrous woman” discourse, as demonstrated in three films featuring female lawyers, contorts and attempts to sabotage the notion of the successful woman lawyer who defies male authority and male-authored notions of “proper” female subjectivity. This is not easy to do, however, because of an enduring binary that operates in literature and, by extension, popular culture: the angel/monster dichotomy. According to Gilbert and Gubar, the female “angel” represents patriarchy’s codification of ideal womanhood, which holds that “woman’s power is not for rule, not for battle, and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for ‘sweet orderings’ of domesticity.” Interestingly, Gilbert and Gubar point out that in order to become an angel, one must first die. Little Women’s Beth March, for example, “is a household saint, and the deathbed at which she surrenders herself to heaven is the ultimate shrine of the angel-woman’s mysteries.” Moreover, “the aesthetic cult of ladylike fragility and delicate beauty[…] obliged women to ‘kill’ themselves into angels: slim, pale, passive beings whose ‘charms’ eerily recalled the snowy, porcelain immobility of the dead. Tight-lacing, fasting, vinegar-drinking, and similar cosmetic or dietary excesses were all parts of a physical regimen that helped white heterosexual women feign morbid weakness or actually ‘decline’ into real illness.” The demand for women’s angelic submission, in other words, is in actuality a call for women to surrender or sacrifice themselves–or in more contemporary terms, to sacrifice their “personal comforts, desires, and inner motivations,” or their selfhood and agency.

Gilbert and Gubar contrast the angel with her opposite, the monster. As “a representative of otherness, she [the monster] incarnates the damning otherness of the flesh rather than the inspiring otherness of the spirit, expressing what […] men consider her own ‘presumptuous’ desires rather than the angelic humility and ‘dullness’ for which she was designed.” Monster-women embody “intransigent female autonomy” that threatens male authority and they must therefore be called “bad names: witch, bitch, fiend, monster.” (Indeed, the witch has long inhabited the space of society’s resentment of women who do not keep their accustomed place in society). The angel/monster dichotomy is summed up by Gilbert and Gubar as follows:

[W]hile male writers traditionally praise the simplicity of the dove, they invariably castigate the cunning of the serpent….Similarly, assertiveness, aggressiveness–all characteristics of a male life of “significant action”–are “monstrous” in women precisely because “unfeminine” and therefore unsuited to a gentle life of “contemplative purity.”

This idea of the female monster finds expression in myth, religion and literature. We will briefly provide two examples, as described by Gilbert and Gubar. The Biblical/Talmudical story of Lilith is the story of a monster woman who “specifically connects presumption with madness, freakishness, monstrosity.” Lilith was both the first woman, and the first monster-woman:

Created not from Adam’s rib but, like him, from the dust, Lilith was Adam’s first wife, according to apocryphal Jewish lore. Because she considered herself his equal, she objected to lying beneath him, so that when he tried to force her submission, she became enraged and, speaking the Ineffable Name, flew away to the edge of the Red Sea to reside with demons. Threatened by God’s angelic emissaries, told that she must return or daily lose a hundred of her demon children to death, Lilith preferred punishment to patriarchal marriage, and she took her revenge against both God and Adam by injuring babies, especially male babies, who were traditionally thought to be more vulnerable to her attacks.

Lilith’s story suggests that in patriarchal cultures, female “presumption”–that is, angry revolt against male domination–is demonic. The figure of Lilith represents the price women have been told they must pay for attempting to define themselves and be themselves–a heavy price that entails their banishment from communities, the death of their children, and becoming monsters.

Similarly, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene provides a literary model to help us understand the dangers of the monstrous woman. Gilbert and Gubar note:

The first book of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene introduces a female monster who serves as a prototype of the entire line. Errour is half woman, half serpent, “Most lothsom, filthie, foule, and full of vile disdaine.” She breeds in a dark den where her young suck on her poisonous dugs or creep back into her mouthat the sight of hated light, and in battle against the noble Red-Crosse Knight, shes pews out a flood of books and articles, frogs and toads. Symbolizing the dangerous effect of misdirected and undigested learning, her filthiness adumbrates that of two other powerful females in Book 1, Duessa and Lucifera.

This monstrous woman is monstrous because she spews out books and articles. In other words, because she is an intelligent, learned woman. Building on Gilbert and Gubar’s work and their use of illustrative examples of monstrosity such as Lilith and The Faerie Queene, we will demonstrate the ubiquity of the female monster metaphor by tracing it in contemporary, popular films featuring female lawyers. We examine three films: Laws of Attraction, Michael Clayton, and I Am Sam. Each film illuminates at least one of the qualities of a mad, presumptuous woman lawyer: she is neurotic, ambitious, or a bad mother, or perhaps all three.

Reconfiguring the Madwoman

The women lawyers in Laws of Attraction, Michael Clayton and I am Sam are understood to be mad or monstrous because they are neurotic, ambitious, and bad mothers, respectively. We argue however that those readings of Audrey Woods, Karen Crowder and Rita Harrison are disembodied and masculine. While setting up a murder as Karen does is clearly monstrous, taking time in a bathroom stall to compose one’s self (Audrey and Karen), wanting to excel in one’s career (Audrey, Karen and Rita), and finding motherhood and full time professional work difficult (Rita) are decidedly not indicators of madness. Yet both law and popular film continue to demonstrate these antagonistic views about and toward women.

Partially this comes from what these three examples of monstrosity–neurosis, ambition, and bad mothering–share, namely a focus on the woman herself and not on others. Traditionally women were supposed to supress their selves and focus on their children and husbands. Audrey, Karen and Rita however focus on themselves and their ambitions, and they are declared mad and monstrous and are punished for so doing. Viewers indict Audrey, Karen and Rita when they feel upset and decide to wait in washrooms, when they highly value their professional goals, or are better at lawyering than mothering, because in these instances Audrey, Karen and Rita are privileging themselves, not others. When women focus on themselves instead of others they are madwomen.

This conclusion parallels what we find in research. When Tinsely, Cheldelin, Kupfer Schneider, and Amanatullah studied new women hires, they found that when women asked for more compensation they were judged significantly “more demanding and less nice” than when new men hires engaged in the same behaviour. In other words, when women demanded more in their careers, they were negatively judged for so doing, whereas men were not. Women generally, and Audrey, Karen and Rita specifically, are ambitious, presumptuous, demanding, and mad when they demand things for themselves. But men, and the male lawyers in their films (e.g. Daniel and Michael) are not seen as demanding or mad, but rather as the nice-guy heroes of their respective films. Interestingly, women lawyers’ assertive behaviour is acceptable, or is subjected to less backlash, when it is seen as advocating for others. This parallels traditional understandings of the role of women to serve others. Therefore, viewers come to like Rita Harrison when she puts her tough litigation skills to work on Sam’s behalf. Then, she is advocating on a mentally challenged man’s behalf–this is admirable–but when she focuses on her career for herself, she is a bad or monstrous mother.

Since men and women lawyers negotiate on behalf of others as a foundational part of their jobs, and since according to researchers, they perform that task equally well, why are we not valuing them equally? Why are women lawyers mad or monstrous, and men are not? The stereotypical perceptions that come with gender have an enormous role to play here. For example, Eckel, de Oliveira, and Grossman demonstrate the actual advocacy and negotiation differences between women and men are small in comparison to the differences in stereotypical expectations about what women and men will do. In fact, the expectations about differences have more impact upon negotiation than any actual differences. This means that differences in behaviour actually have less weight than differences in expectations about behaviour.

So what are the expectations about women’s behaviour? The same stereotypical expectations that can be traced through the ancient Greeks, the Talmud, Coleridge, Alcott, Freud and Spenser right to Laws of Attraction, Michael Clayton and I am Sam. Viewers expect and these films tell us that ambitious, strong women lawyers are bad mothers and kind of crazy. How do we respond to this? We know that popular films portray women lawyers as mad women, monstrous, or at the very least, less positively than men lawyers, and research demonstrates that women negotiators have less success than men negotiators when they are acting in their own interests. Our response is to assert that both of these problems would be somewhat alleviated if we stop using men’s styles as the standard against which women are compared, and if we reconfigured our understanding of presumptive women lawyers. As Deborah Kolb notes, representing gender along the lines of difference means that we come at these questions from a “fix the woman” approach, asking, what can the woman do to perform better, i.e. perform more like a man? We do not wish to ask this question. We are more interested in interrogating whether the man’s approach (noting there is obviously more than one) is actually better, and more importantly, what we can do to disrupt and change legal culture and understandings. When we only target women for improvement, we leave the theory, practice and understandings of Law and Film unchanged.

The metaphor of the monstrous woman, as described and critiqued by Gilbert and Gubar, shares with law a preoccupation with knowledge and power. Powerful, knowledgeable women have always been a problem for society. Lawless notes for example that the witch tradition is one of individualistic female outsiders who are antagonistic to the community. This has obvious parallels to women lawyers and law. We argue for a reinvention of individualistic female outsiders; they are necessary to the functioning of the community. Understanding powerful women lawyers as necessary outsiders may be an important first step to bringing them into the community.

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