Jennifer Chambers Lynch’s Boxing Helena (1993) begins with a journey through a lush party. The low camera angle throughout most of the scene gives the audience a view through the eyes of a young Nick Cavanaugh- a boy who will grow up to be the movie’s star villain. As Nick searches the party his eyes linger on a replica of Venus De Milo, an ancient Greek statue depicting a women with no arms, before then resting on a glamorous, blonde-haired woman. This opening scene sets up the film’s entire thesis in a way that is more subtle than it first appears. On a first watch one might conclude that the glamorous woman, who is Nick’s mother, is the most important figure in the scene because she is the conclusion of our trek through a sea of overdressed adults. However, while Boxing Helena contains both glamorous women and a boy’s mommy issues, the film’s true subject is the Venus De Milo and what she represents.
As we fast forward to present day in the film, we see an adult Nick grappling with an intense obsession with a beautiful woman named Helena. It would have been easy for the film to only show Helena through Nick’s view of her, however the Helena the audience sees couldn’t be more different than the one Nick sees. To the audience she is a person. She has desires, feelings, flaws, and strengths. We begin to learn about Helena during a sex scene between her and a man named Ray. She is an active participant in their foreplay as she pulls Ray’s head to her breast. She spends much of their encounter on top of Ray. Even when his pleasure is the focus of a sexual act she is the one removing his clothes and directing the situation. When she is no longer in the mood to have sex they stop, despite Ray’s protests. Later in the film, Helena goes home with a man from Nick’s party, as they leave Helena holds the man’s arm around her waist. Creating a sexually active woman character is nothing new, but not all sexual women are shown with the same agency. Helena’s consent and desire can not be questioned because she is actively in control of how men touch her body. Her ability to act completely on her own desires continues beyond sexual encounters. She books a trip to Mexico without having to consult anyone. When Ray tells her to wear a dress he wants she refuses. These may seem like small occurrences, and that’s why they are important, they are what make Helena real. Women do plan trips, they do wear what they want regardless of men’s opinions, and they do express sexual preferences, however we are often shown narratives of compromise and sacrifice when it comes to our women characters. This sacrificial woman narrative still exists in this movie between Nick and his girlfriend, Anne. When Nick calls Anne she drops whatever she was doing to bring dinner to his house. She then spends time setting up the table for him in hopes of getting to have dinner with him, but he leaves her to spy on Helena.
During the opening scene, an older gentleman tell’s young Nick to remember his family motto– “hard work and persistence will get you anything in the world you want.” Nick’s adherence to this motto when it comes to his love life is what creates the horror in this film, however in many films it creates romance. In The Notebook (2004), Allie reject’s Noah’s requests to go out with her several times, but he invades her space and threatens to harm himself until she agrees to go on a date. In Love & Other Drugs (2010), Maggie breaks up with Jamie, and has moved forward with her life, until he confronts her about why they need each other, ignoring her request for him to leave her alone. Hard work and persistence might get you anything, but “anything” should not mean anyone. The problem lies in making women a thing, an object, a prize for a man’s hard work. Helena is an idealized trophy for Nick. His obsession with her started after they had a one night stand, this means he actually has no idea who she is as a person. Despite spending most of our screentime with Nick, the audience knows more about Helena than he does. When she is finalizing her trip to Mexico she speaks in fluent Spanish: does Nick even know Helena can speak two languages? His focus when speaking about her is always on himself. He calls his friend to declare he has to get her back with no consideration of whether or not Helena wants to be with him. Before she is suppose to leave for Mexico, Helena leaves her purse at Nick’s house. She asks him to bring it to her at the airport. When Nick gets to the airport he repeatedly tells her that they should go cancel her ticket together. When she speaks to him he talks over her. He is always trying to direct their interactions so that they match his fantasy, instead of listening to what she is saying to him. Because he left her address book at his house, Helena leaves the airport with him to get it. When they arrive at his house, Nick says they should have lunch together, when Helena refuses he changes it to having a drink together. He implies through his wording that if she just agrees to eat with him he will finally give her what she wants and leave her alone. He is always pushing for more from her, using what she needs as leverage. When she enters the house to get her address book he puts on music and lights candles creating a forced romantic situation she did not consent to. The idea that a woman’s rejection can be undone by persistence leads to a self-focused pursuit that treats women like dolls that are manipulated only by the pursuer instead of by their own thoughts.
Nick believes he has the perfect opportunity to finally collect his trophy when Helena is hit by a car. He performs surgery on her in his house, amputating both of her legs, and holds her captive. During an argument about Helena’s captivity Nick claims he just wants to make her feel good, to which she responds “you don’t have the faintest idea how to make me feel good.” Nick believes that by caring for her he can make her love him, but he still is focused only on himself and not Helena as a person. To him she is an object he can care for by attending to her physical needs, like one would polish silver, but he has no ability to care for her emotionally. Despite finally having the object of his desire in his home, Nick does not spend much time with Helena at his point because he is still unable to control her actions and words. Instead he spends time looking at pictures and video of her. As Helena’s rejection of him continues, Nick decides to increase his control over her by amputating her arms. When she wakes up from this surgery she is sitting on the middle of a table surrounded by flowers, a picturesque centerpiece for Nick’s dining room table. His focus in caring for her continues to be on her physical appearance. He dresses her in pretty clothes, brushes her hair, does her makeup, and wipes away any speck that lands on her, such as an eyelash. He keeps her as pristine as a collectors item.
At the beginning of the film Helena has free will while navigating the narratives Nick creates for her. He sets up an elaborate party hoping she will spend the night speaking with him, and she brushes him off to mingle with other people. He sets up a intimate lunch, and she refuses to eat. However, by the end of the film Nick is able to to control Helena’s every movement. He moves her outside so that he can read to her in the fresh air. He moves her to the kitchen so that they can spend the evening cooking a romantic dinner together. Just as the subjects of a painting cannot move with an intention free from their painter’s narrative, Helena has lost her ability move through Nick’s romantic narrative, and therefore she eventually succumbs to it. She has become a piece of art sculpted by Nick’s need to define how she should respond to him. Many men throughout history have felt the need to define strict narratives for women to exist in. Women should be the moral compass of the household. Women shouldn’t be in leadership position. Women shouldn’t be sexually expressive. However, women have always created their own path through these narratives. Perhaps when we see art made by men who create images of women while declaring things like “Women are machines for suffering” (said by Pablo Picasso in 1943), we are seeing their attempt to create a woman who cannot escape the narrative they have decided for her.
by Vincent Bec
Vincent Bec is a recent graduate of North Carolina State University in Psychology, Media Communication, and Gender Studies. Their life is currently dedicated to getting into a Film Phd program so that one day their ramblings about gender and sexuality in Horror films can be officially backed by a doctorate. They currently contribute to Anatomy of a Scream and Grim Magazine. Their favorite movies include Pride & Prejudice, Daisies, A Question of Silence, Sleep Away Camp, and A Texas Chain Saw Massacre. You can follow them on twitter at @slasherdaysaint.
Categories: Feminist Criticism