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Reconsidering Buster Keaton's Heroines

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 21, Number 1, April 1997
pp. 77-90 | 10.1353/phl.1997.0011

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Philosophy and Literature 21.1 (1997) 77-90

It has become commonplace to acknowledge that art tends to reflect the prejudices and presuppositions of the age in which it is produced. Such acknowledgement can serve not only to place the prejudicial attitudes expressed by artists and authors in their proper context, it can also reassure us that we have avoided the same prejudices, or at least, that we have achieved a greater awareness of and sensitivity to them. But we should not be too easily reassured by these thoughts of our own enlightened progress, for the prejudices that we think we discover in works of art may sometimes be of our own making.

Prejudice is, at least in part, a problem of distorted perception. Freeing oneself of prejudice is thus not simply a matter of disposing of false beliefs; it requires new habits of perception -- becoming able to see what one could not see before. Since habits of perception can be deeply ingrained, we may find it difficult to recognize their persistence. Therefore even as we attempt to repudiate prejudicial attitudes, we may find ourselves misled by their continuing distortion of our vision. This can lead not only to continuing bias on our part, it can also lead to unwarranted charges of bias against others. For instance, the distorted vision that can pervade our evaluation of people in real life can also pervade our evaluation of characters in films or novels. When this happens, we may unfairly charge the film or novel with the perpetuation of negative stereotypes. There are also other ways in which we may be misled by our own biases. For example, if we expect to find negative stereotypes in the products of a given age, this may lead us to see the stereotypes that we anticipate -- whether they are really there or not. The work of art can thus become a mirror of our own prejudices and preconceptions.

This is, I believe, what has occurred with much of the criticism of the portrayal of women in Buster Keaton's films. Critical essays, commentaries, and even film-schedule blurbs tend either to downplay the strengths of the heroines in his films or brand them unfairly as stupid and incompetent. This unjust characterization of the heroines has become an unquestioned myth planted early in the minds of Keaton's audiences. For example, some prints of The General contain an "educational" introduction which, among other things, describes Annabelle as yet another one of Keaton's scatter-brained heroines. The audience is thus primed to see Keaton's heroines in this light.

In my discussion I will expose the gap between the myths surrounding Keaton's heroines and the actual characterization of those heroines in the films. I will then explore possible explanations for the durability of the myths by looking at whether there is something about Keaton's films that provokes these prejudicial readings.


Keaton's short film, The Balloonatic, begins in an amusement park with the hero vainly pursuing one woman after another until he is finally given a black eye by a young woman he has annoyed with his attentions. Discouraged, he wanders over to watch the launching of a hot air balloon, where he is given a pennant to attach to its top. His task completed, he finds himself atop the runaway balloon. When his rash attempt to shoot a bird perched on the balloon brings him rapidly back down to earth, he discovers himself stranded in the wilderness.

The hero quickly sets out to adapt to his wilderness environment, but he is thwarted in his efforts by his inexperience and incompetence in the role of outdoorsman. He tries to fish, but when he casts his line, he catches the hook on his pants. He then dams up a stream so that he can pick up the stranded fish, but unbeknownst to him, they fall through a hole in his creel as soon as he puts them in. When he finally does realize what is happening, his dam breaks and he is carried helplessly down stream by the rush of water. Later in the film, we see the hero trying to paddle a canoe, but...

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