Cat People

Sometimes described as a “B-Movie” because of its low budget, I would argue that Jacques Tourner’s Cat People (1942) transcends the genre of the low quality, often ridiculous and hokey films that most times are associated with those on a budget.

Basically, the story is one of a young Serbian woman named Irena who fears that when she becomes immensely jealous, angry, or kisses a man, she becomes a black cat and attacks the offending party, whether male or female.  Any day of the week she can be found at the local zoo’s panther cage, sketching the cats with large swords being stabbed through them.  Irena, hating and rejecting her ability to transform draws the sword in a literal hope that the cat part of her will be slain (why she wouldn’t want to embrace this awesome power is beyond me).  During one her daily sketch sessions, local mapmaker Oliver is intrigued by her beauty and pursues her, later stating that though he did not love her, he was drawn and intrigued by her.

The two quickly get hitched and are married for several months without even the hint of physical activity, including kissing on down.  Irena fears the transformation into her powerful cat self and I’d venture to bet that this is a metaphor for the fear of female sexuality, both from a male’s point of view and also the taboo of women having and recognizing their own sexual urges.

As time rolls on, Oliver becomes increasingly frustrated by Irena’s lack of physical affection–although Irena is upfront with him from the beginning that she needs time and he assures her that she can have all the time in the world.  Unfortunately for Irena, to Oliver “all the time in the world” translates to a few mere months before he finds himself in the embrace of a female co-worker, with whom he quickly leaves Irena for.

But let’s not argue that little Ollie didn’t try to salvage the marriage, he did after all send her to a male shrink to “cure” her irrational fantasies.  Her therapist, Dr. Judd believes that Irena can be cured by kissing her against her will and as a result she becomes a cat, and in this case I’d wager more of a defense mechanism and kills him.  And why shouldn’t she defend herself when forced upon by her doctor?  Though this film was written, directed and produced by men who probably weren’t attending any feminist rallies, this revenge fantasy does resonate with my blood lust for attackers and rapists, which is essentially what this doctor was.

While watching the somewhat incestuous relationship between Irena, Doc Judd and her husband Oliver, I kept thinking that I had seen this scenario before.  And then it hit me–The Yellow Wallpaper, the short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman!  It almost seems verbatim–a woman who is deemed by her husband too high strung and emotional and is physically and/or emotionally locked up from society (in the short story’s version in a child’s room).  In both stories, the female lead is patronized by her husband and doctor, who discuss “the patient” amongst each other while skipping over the middleperson–the patient herself.  Both women’s cures are discussed and prescribed, and the medicine is the inhibition of personal expression and/or creativity.  Again, I think it is safe to call both of these scenarios fairly textbook–that women’s bodies and minds need to be analyzed, explored, controlled and cured.

Another point of note that struck me while watching is the idea of the “other,” which Irena inherently is as she is not only a woman, but foreign to New York.  And why wouldn’t a foreigner have a family history of crazed, emotional women who turn into killer cats because of some sort of Turkish curse or something of the like?  Because Irena is “other” to the main characters, she is mysterious, deadly and comes from uncivilized and archaic roots.  Even the American female lead, when juxtaposed to Irena’s outlandish story is portrayed as rational and believable, even when she indulges in fanciful, irrational stories.

Though I probably wouldn’t describe Cat People as a feminist film per se, I would say it can be analyzed with a feminist lens, especially as a cultural artifact of the 1940s.  Through it all though, and even though she was the villain, I sided with Irena and for the first time ever, I sided with the bad guy, or in this case, bad gal.  What can I say?  She’s one tough pussy.


Being Their Own Women: Self Discovery & Independence in Women’s Personal Lives

The Awakening
by Kate Chopin

Set in the late 19th century, The Awakening spans two pivotal seasons in Edna Pontellier’s life as a young wife and mother.  Having never felt truly alive during the entire span of her life, Edna “awakens” during a summer of spiritual liberation, leading her to reflect on her life as someone’s wife and mother.  The story results in a woman who subverts the conventions of her time by defying filial and maternal expectations by focusing on her life as her own woman.

Personal Velocity
 by Rebecca Miller

Miller’s book consists of seven short stories that describe the lives of seven very different women. They are bound by their grit, strength, incredible struggles, and their will to survive amidst their personal tribulations. Despite each of their uphill struggles, each character finds solace the minute details of life uses that to persevere in their own ways, revealing the complexity of women’s reaction to struggle.

A Spy in the House of Love
by Anais Nin

In this semi-autobiographic work, the lead female character, Sabina, struggles to develop her sexual and artistic expression.  This work is known for its erotic language and strong themes of a relationship with the self and passion.

The Story of Avis
by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

Avis is an artist who decides to marry who she thinks is a “modern man,” believing (and being led to believe) that once married she can continue to express her creative self.  However, the traditional gender roles that suppress(ed) women and elevate men take their hold over Avis’ artistic expression.

by Virginia Woolf

Born as a man, Orlando transforms into a woman as (s)he lives over several centuries, experiencing the gamut of gender norms, restrictions and suppositions that are forced on men and women. Seeing the treatment of Orlando as both a man and a woman by society, though (s)he is the same person, highlights the inequities that both men and women have faced throughout the ages.

The Bell Jar
by Sylvia Plath

Though sold as fiction, The Bell Jar is an autobiographical account of Esther (some argue Plath), a young woman working for a summer as an employee of a major magazine away from home.  There, Esther suffers a mental breakdown, and the reader is taken down with her into the depths of her insanity, so much though that it is difficult to distinguish insanity from reality.

by Djuna Barnes

Taking place in Paris, Nightwood tells the story of two women romantically involved and the deterioration of their relationship.  This novel highlights both hetero-sexual and lesbian relationships that are expressed through dark, thick and lyrical language.

Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein
by Gertrude Stein

This collection features non-fiction essays, anecdotes and fictional stories about Stein’s female partner, and artists of the day.  This book is a perfect sampling of Stein’s well-known fragmented and unique writing style.  It also features the well-known short story “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene,” who we assume to be two romantically linked women who strive for their own fulfillment in life and relationships.

by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

Perhaps the most obscure of all her titles, this autobiographical account and coming of age story, written by Hilda Doolittle, commonly known as H.D., details her unsure and tumultuous life during her twenties at Bryn Mawr. H.D., known in the book as Hermione Gart, battles to transition between her old, obedient self that her parents once knew and the new identity that she begins to forge now that she is away at school and exposed to people who help to foster her true self.

The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Most known for the short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, a woman is denied creative output by her husband and is treated as psychologically weak and incompetent, which ultimately exacerbates to her mental deterioration. This collection also features Gilman’s non-fiction prose, Women and Economics and an excerpt from her novel Herland which illuminates a peaceful, all female utopia without the presence of men and that of a patriarchal, capitalist system.