“By playing on old stereotypes and contemporary fears, the media have managed to create a climate where the woman who ‘wants it all’ is asking for trouble. By creating myths, from the man shortage to the infertility epidemic to female burn-out, the media spent much of the 1980s undermining the progress made by the women’s movement. “1 This essay will focus on feminity and the portrayal of women in Single White Female (Schroeder, 1992).
It will discuss the film both as a warning and a validation of the independent, single career woman who was a particular feature of the 1980s and the Yuppie culture. Whilst Allies suffering at the hands of Hedy can be read as a punishment for her rejection of her traditional role as a wife and mother the films resolution does not show her situation changed, she in fact seems more stable without her fiance Sam.
Single White Female is part of what has been referred to as the’Woman from hell’ sub genre. Fatal Attraction was arguably the first and this group of films also includes Basic Instinct, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Someone to Watch Over Me. The representation of women and feminity in this sub genre generally focuses on an opposition between the good/ virgin woman or wife and an evil/whore woman or female psychopath, this opposition is one which is also commonly found in Film Noir.
The sub genre of the ‘woman from hell’ film also has been said to cover other genres such as melodrama, with its frequently home and family based concerns and the Police/detective thriller. Deborah Jermyn argues that these films can be seen as “Horror for women”2 as they also belong to the ‘invasion-of-the-home’ sub genre, indeed many of the features of horror can be seen in the films of this sub genre. Clovers “Terrible Place”3 is often the home where the drama is played out and this is particularly seen in the Gothic style mansion in Single White Female.
The female Psychopath of these films is also seen by Jermyn as “embodying both ancient and evolving fears of woman”4 and therefore can be read as monstrous. Allies disappearing body once she is supposedly killed is also a device often used in horror. Many of these films deal explicitly with a sexually powerful, independent, yet psychologically disturbed woman threatening in some way the sanctity of the home and family, a major part of this threat is through some form of transgressive sexual relationship with the male patriarch.
Sharon Willis suggests that “Contemporary popular film continues almost compulsively to display men who are physically or psychically disabled in the face of womens force and aggression. “5 Single White Female is slightly different in that the focus of the female psychopaths attentions is female and not already part of a stable family unit, the film could therefore be read as a double warning to women about the dangers of abandoning the home and family life in favour of a career and independence.
Single White Female explicitly uses the doppelganger motif to draw parallels between Hedy and Allie. It is Allie who initially begins snooping in Hedys room. As Hedy begins to change her appearance in an attempt to become closer to Allie they are almost indistinguishable in appearance and we are invited to believe that Hedy is attempting to find a replacement for her dead twin sister. Jermyn suggests that the theme of feminity as masquerade is present, shown by the methods Hedy uses as she begins to take over Allies life.
Hair, make up, clothing and jewellery are the superficial things that initially construct Allie and by taking on these trappings Hedy manages to convince people that she actually is Allie for short periods, as in Allies fiance and the clerk at the reception desk in the hotel. Her long term failure in this illustrates the “futility of this notion of the construction of feminity”6. Allies personality cannot be constructed purely in terms of outward appearance and Hedy fails to recreate the bond she had with her twin sister by merely replicating Allies external appearance.
Rodowick, discussing masquerade, refers to Joan Rivieres “analysis of “intellectual” and professionally successful young women who compensate for their theft of masculine activity by exaggerating the cultural accoutrements of feminity. “7 Allies short skirts and large jewellery would fall into this category. Hedys corresponding theft of Allies successful career woman identity simply by taking on these accoutrements could again be read as a warning to women about straying from their traditional role as homemakers and wives by showing the superficiality of the identity that Allie has constructed for herself as a mask against the world.
While Hedy is a dowdy, domesticated, shy woman masquerading as Allie, a successful career woman, it could be said that Allie is doing the same and that her external decoration and confidence mask a deeper dissatisfaction with her life as it currently is and a desire to return to a more traditionally feminine role. This doppelganger motif also makes a reading of Hedy as the physical embodiment of Allies unconscious desires an easy step to take, the two characters are often shown in mirrors together, Hedy often hovering just over Allies right shoulder like a shadow.
Hedy kills Allies unfaithful boyfriend while dressed in Allies clothes and Jermyn suggests that this is Allies “revenge fantasy”8 . Allie and Hedy become increasingly indistinguishable throughout the film, initially it seems that Hedy is the domesticated ‘good’ woman, we see her cooking eggs for Sams breakfast and the scene in the kitchen appears at first sight to be a happy family breakfast, while Allie is spending more and more time at work in an attempt to increase her business contacts, she neglects Sams needs in favour of her own.
As Hedy takes on more of Allies characteristics she becomes increasingly sexually aggressive. We see her in an underground fetish club and seducing Sam, at the same time Allie seems to become more vulnerable and less forthright and unable to stand up to Hedy. Hedy represents female sexuality as pathological and dangerous, she is shown masturbating and men are the main targets of her violence, it is interesting that the only male character to survive her attack is homosexual and therefore not susceptible to her dangerous sexuality.
As Jermyn says “Hedy still represents the unacceptable face of feminity which must be defeated. As the abject she must be expelled, destroyed for her symbolic castration of the men she attacks, her violence and, particularly, her sexual excess. “9 Graham, as a Gay man has already been symbolically castrated and therefore survives her attacks on him although. The doppelganger motif shown in Single White Female could also be read as representing womens’ duplicitous and untrustworthy nature.
If we read Hedy as the embodiment of Allies repressed desires then while seeming to forgive Sam she secretly still distrusts and resents him. By tricking him into another incident of infidelity with her and then punishing him for his transgression Hedy is demonstrating Allies own mistrust of him since his previous infidelity. Jermyn says that the doppelganger frequently exists as “the presence of a woman from the past, perhaps the man’s previous wife or lover, or a malign older woman, who emerges in some sense to haunt the victim and is an expression of her divided/ multiple self/selves. 10 As a woman from the present rather than the past Hedys appearance blurs the boundaries between the two characters and their motivations and represents women as deceiving and dishonest. Allies sexual jealousy and rage are represented in Hedy, and as Allie becomes more forgiving of Sams past indiscretions with his ex-wife so Hedy becomes increasingly violent and jealous. This suggests that Allies seeming forgiveness of Sam is not as genuine as it seems.
She is obviously jealous when she sees Hedy and Sam eating breakfast together and when she sees them talking while Hedy is only half dressed but she does not relate this to Sams indiscretion, she shows no signs of distrust and seems almost to rush back into how thing where and talks of marriage and moving in together. This suggests the return of these repressed emotions through Hedy’s increasingly unbalanced behaviour Hedy and Allie demonstrate aspects of the Film Noir femme fatale.
In Noir the femme fatale is a dangerously sexual woman who entices the male lead into a dangerous underworld of deception and crime, he is often lead to kill. Hedy could be seen as fulfilling this role in Allies life, she keeps her away from Sam and marriage and, although it is Hedy that kills, she does this as Allie. Finally it is obvious that it is Allie who will be blamed for these crimes. At one point she literally leads Allie into an underworld when Allie follows her into an underground club. In Film Noir it is clear that men need to control women’s sexuality in order not to be destroyed by it. The dark woman of film noir had something her innocent sister lacked: access to her own sexuality (and thus to men’s) and the power that this access unlocked”11 Hedy demonstrates this access to her own sexuality both by her seduction of men and when she is seen masturbating by Allie, however, rather than this dangerous female sexuality being punished and contained by a man it is Allie, the female protagonist, who finally defeats and represses this threat to stability.
This gives the film a rather different message from traditional Noir, it is not a man, representing patriarchy, that dominates and subordinates Hedy, it is Allie. This could be read symbolically as Allie controlling the dangerous side of her own sexuality, indeed, at the films conclusion Allie is still single and independent. The film could still be read as a warning against the ultimate destructive power of female sexuality but it implies not that this needs to be controlled by men but by women themselves.
Single White Female could be seen to serve a ritual or mythic function in society in that it sees played out and resolved on screen many of societies fears about rapidly changing roles in society. Allie is a career woman with her own business but she struggles to find a balance between this and her fear of being alone, she takes on a room mate to avoid this after Sam leaves and then attempts to get rid of her when Sam returns, this leaves us unsure as to her motivation for marriage, is she simply lonely and looking for a permanent companion?
Allie embodies contemporary fears about career women who ‘leave it too late’ through a single minded dedication to a career and end up lonely and childless, as does Alex in Fatal Attraction. Jermyn suggests that this is resolved by the film as “through surviving her ordeal, Allie has escaped containment within the family, avoided marriage to an unfaithful partner, over come sexual harassment, confronted female sexuality and, arguably, started to overcome her fear of being alone. 12 it seems that Allies life is more stable and balanced than it was before Hedys appearance. Single White Female represents women and feminity in both positive and negative ways. While the blurring of the boundaries between Hedy and Allie would seem to suggest that all feminity is pathological in some way and needs to be controlled it also suggests, by its conclusion, that the best people to exert this control are women themselves.
It shows uncontrolled male sexual behaviour as unacceptable and deserving of punishment as well as that of female characters through the deaths of the unfaithful Sam and Allies client who sexually harasses her. It seems to be a reflection of the aftermath of the 1980s backlash against the successful career woman by leaving Allie still alone and unmarried and possibly more stable for this fact. It is the sexuality of the men in her life that destabilise her and bring about a lack of control rather than her own.