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  • Twentieth Centurions:Screening Gender and Sexuality before the Digital
  • Heather N. Lukes (bio)
Sarah Hagelin’s Reel Vulnerability: Power, Pain, and Gender in Contemporary American Film and Television, New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 2013
B. Ruby Rich’s New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013
Amy Villarejo’s Ethereal Queer: Television, Historicity, Desire, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014

Through strikingly different modes of intellectual engagement, these three books offer a rich account of gender and sexuality in the latter half of the twentieth century. Sarah Hagelin’s work reminds us of all that remains delicious about historically informed, close formal analysis of both the large and small screen through her upending of gendered assumptions about “vulnerability.” Reel Vulnerability addresses the concept expansively within a relatively narrow topical frame: through war and the rapeable female body. Hagelin’s theoretical starting point is Laura Mulvey’s 1975 equation of the camera’s gaze with male assault, which has been revised by many critics, including Mulvey herself. As Hagelin points out, however, social discourses about female vulnerability have nonetheless often served to reify Mulvey’s initial point, especially through the lingering concern for “women and children.” The result is a persistent feminization of vulnerability that seems utterly at odds with the celebration of “strong” female characters in film and television since the 1990s, ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) and G.I. Jane (1997) to Deadwood (2004–06) and Battlestar Galactica (2004–09). Here, Reel Vulnerability centers an important difference between the lie of “postfeminism” that spectacularizes what political scientist Caroline Heldman terms the “fighting fuck toy” and Hagelin’s distinction between “sentimental and resistant” vulnerability that both genders may occupy (9, 11). Hagelin’s readings expand the terrain of vulnerability well beyond the “logic of female frailty” and its [End Page 116] fierce foil to explicate how, even within the same movie or show, subtle deployments of threat and woundedness may manifest variously reactionary or progressive meanings in an increasingly precarious world.

Reel Vulnerability’s chiasmic crossing of male and female figuration with resistant vs. sentimental tactics begins with a reading of The Furies (1950) and The Men (1950) in which the gendered distinction between their respective leads, Barbara Stanwyck and Marlon Brando, is informed by the rise of Method acting and its reassignment of emotionalism to men, forged through the wholesale dismissal of the resistant female vulnerability embodied in the stylized acting of 1930s women’s film and film noir. War films including The Deer Hunter (1978), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Casualties of War (1989), Saving Private Ryan (1998), and G.I. Jane (1997) command the center of Reel Vulnerability, with complex interplays between sentiment around and among bands of brothers, rape as spoils of battle vs. dishonor to the cause, the fitness of female soldiers, and the trauma of men unfit to be soldiers. As the book turns to the millennium with texts like Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and The Laramie Project (2002), vulnerability becomes more queer, dispersive, and interdependent. Yet it also becomes more sentimental, in keeping with LGBT social inclusion by way of straight pity, in which too many queers have been melancholic collaborators. Hagelin concludes with post-9/11 television, where post-feminist tough women, posthumanism, and torture variously figure a crisis of global precarity in shows including 24 (2001–10), Battlestar Galactica, and Deadwood. The narrative long form and through line afforded by the hour-long serialized televisual drama at once expands and circumscribes the limits of resistant vulnerability by engaging complicated questions about endurance, ensemble social networks of suffering, and shaded ethical terrains over which the 90–120 minutes of narrative cinema seem no longer to hold moral authority.

Negotiating between the affective regimes of the postmortem and optimistic hope for new media, B. Ruby Rich’s “director’s cut” historicizes the 1990s New Queer Cinema (NQC) through her own unique perspective, serving as she has in the capacity of its coiner and its most crucial “funder, critic, curator, pundit, publicist, scholar, [and] champion” (xx). At stake here is more than a subgenre, as the festival circuits that have supported her...


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pp. 116-119
Launched on MUSE
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