When Ellen Moers coined the term ‘Female Gothic’ in 1976 it was to describe how 18th and 19th century women novelists employed certain coded expressions to characterise social and political anxieties women experienced at the time, such as domestic entrapment and repressed sexuality. Since then, the term has developed significantly and the sub genre has traversed into the world of cinema, wth scholars reflecting on and applying the term to many classic films. It is most notably recognised filmically during the women’s films of the 1940s and the ‘gaslight cycle’.
Modern incarnations of the sub-genre are analysed as representative of the passage from girlhood to female maturity. Gothic texts concerning women embody the fantasy of escaping from the all-embracing mother into individuation, often by way of developing sexuality. In Reviewing the Female Gothic Heroine: Agency, Identification and Feminist Film Criticism, Helen Hanson states that ‘the gothic possesses the ability constantly to renew itself, to assert its relevance in distinct socio-cultural eras’ and its this ability that makes the concept of the female gothic still so potent in cinema decades on from the 1940s.
Penned by Wentworth Miller and directed by Park Chan-wook, Stoker presents itself as a modern female gothic. Heavily influenced by Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, the psychological thriller sees its protagonist India (Mia Wasikowska) come to terms with the death of her father, her difficult relationship with her mother Evie (Nicole Kidman) and the sudden and mysterious arrival of her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). As Park Chan-wook expresses in an interview, Stoker twists the ordinary coming of age tale and ‘rather than leaving her nest in search of a commendable, positive, beautiful set of values, India leaves as a devil in search for evolution into being a complete evil incarnate’. It’s a film that explores the journey from girlhood to womanhood and sees its protagonist, India, develop a sense of self by way of rebellion and transgression. Rife with uncanny temporal dislocation and psychoanalytic undertones, Stoker is truly a modern gothic tale, thematising the transgression of boundaries and situating its narrative in the microcosm of terror that is the familial home to flesh out an atavistic tale of secrecy, ambiguity and suspense. The film takes classic concepts of the female gothic and subscribes to the adaptive quality of the genre, in that it is constantly renewing itself and evolving, resulting in an utterly stunning and intensely perturbing piece of work.
In traditional gothic literature and cinema, female characters, particularly the mother, are used as doubles for the heroine. Mother-daughter relationships are often fraught, with the former frequently absent or displaced and thus providing a ghostly distance that harbours the problematics of femininity which the heroine must then confront. The child struggles for a separate identity and ‘this ongoing battle with a mirror image who is both self and other is what [is at] the centre of the Gothic structure’ (Hanson).
India and her mother Evie have a complicated relationship in Stoker. Visually, the two women are starkly different, with Evie possessing lucious ginger hair and bright blue eyes whilst her daughter’s features are dark and steely. Moreover, Evie represents a woman who is bound to social expectations; she’s overtly feminine, with perfectly curled firey hair and a passive demeanor around men. She talks about being locked up in the house, closely aligning herself with the domestic prison found time and time again in the female gothic. She’s not the perfect mother or housewife, but she conforms to a certain performance of femininity, one that India seems to reject.
Yet there are also ways in which India uses her mother as a double, mirroring her feminine and womanly actions in order to get closer to Charlie. Thus begins a battle for dominance between the women and ultimately between India and her uncle himself. India silently stalks her mother and uncle around the house, voyeuristically spying on their intimate moments. She studies their movements, copying them exactly as she later becomes intimate with a boy. Her mirroring is a way to transcend from her girlhood innocence. After India has fully succumbed to her depraved desires, totally relating her sexual and violent pleasures and thus transgressing into twisted womanhood, she visits her mother in her boudoir. Evie is in a pink silk dress and India mimics her by wearing a similar slip that her mother bought for her. Here, India appears to be tying herself to the image of her mother, creating a unified identity. Evie comments on how she always had to compete with India’s father for her affections; she is being vulnerable and India is lulling her into a false sense of security and familiarity. As she seemingly dotingly brushes her mother’s hair, it is clear who has the power in this situation. A seasoned hunter, with her hands in her mother’s hair, India asserts her dominance. She silently waits on her prey, the power literally in her hands to inflict harm. Whilst India may look like her mother in this instance, the visual femininity and likeness to her mother is simply a hunting technique, allowing her to gain the upper hand and successfully cross the boundary into individualised self through power and control.
The sudden arrival of Uncle Charlie is the catalyst for India’s transgression into maturity. Claire Kahane’s essay, The Gothic Mirror, focuses on the use of female figures as doubles for the heroine. However, in the case of Stoker, it is a male figure that is used as a mirror for India’s transgression. India projects her repressed desires, sexual and violent, onto her Uncle Charlie and he aids her in her search for a sense of separate self. This subversion of the female gothic trope is subtly used through the constant comparison of India and her father, but more intricately explored through her relationship with her uncle. It is when he arrives that India begins her transgressional journey from girlhood and at the same time, begins her descent into ‘complete evil incarnate’.
In Jungian terms, Uncle Charlie is a physical manifestation of India’s Shadow, the animal side of one’s personality that enables us to divulge in our dark and often repressed desires. The film directly plays on this in one instance, presenting both characters in a frame but only depicting Charlie as a literal shadow standing opposite India. Charlie awakens India’s sexual and violent desires and the film presents these as often coming hand in hand. We learn that violence evokes pleasure for India and that she relates moments of violence with moments of seduction.
In a scene set at India’s school, she is taunted by a group of boys. One of which harrasses her earlier during art class with a crude naked drawing and the statement that he is ‘penetrating’ India with his eyes. When she doesn’t respond to his sexual advances, he goes to hit her, subtly setting up a close relaionship between sex and violence. During a later instance of taunting, the group of boys mock her, calling her ‘Stroker’ because they hear that’s what her mother is doing to her uncle and they ask if she’s “also getting in on that”. They boys continue to jibe, addressing her as a ‘little girl’, reminding the audience of her subsequent transition into womanhood and signalling to the beginning of her mature transgression. This taunt encourages her to approach the main bully, who, as he goes to hit her, gets stabbed by India with a sharp pencil, drawing blood. Back in the house, India sharpens the bloody pencil on her bed before closing her eyes and daydreaming. What comes next is the first instance of India relating violence, injury and pain to sexual desire.
As she daydreams, she imagines herself sitting at the piano, playing alone. Suddenly, Uncle Charlie appears and accompanies her. Charlie overtakes her hands and they fight for dominance on the piano whilst simultaneously playing something harmonious- the jagged, frantic notes fit together. The pace quickens and Charlie gets closer, reaching around her. His head is on her neck and she exhales. She is finding pleasure in this. She stares up, her eyes fluttering closed, her legs squeezing together and almost when the song climaxes, so does she. She exhales deeply and Charlie has disappeared. The memory of violence has evoked sexual feelings and she relates both to her Uncle Charlie, who acts as an enabler for releasing her repressed desires. This is most explicitly visualised as India masturbates to the memory of the murder of her rapist by her Uncle Charlie. As she washes the grime and blood off of her body, she cries at the harrowing event that has just occured. This scene is dislocated, being intercut with memories of the attack and the subsequent death and disposal of the body. India recalls being handed the shovel to assist in burying the body and it’s with this granting of power and recollection of her active role in the violence that her crying stops. The murder – the brutal and violent strangulation and breaking of her attacker’s neck whilst he lies on top of her – replays in her head and she begins to masturbate. The two scenes are fluidly intercut and at the exact moment that the boy’s neck snaps, India climaxes. The act of killing brings her pleasure and she has reached maturity by both actively taking part in the development of her sexuality and her violent abilities.
The discovery of the truth about her Uncle Charlie and the nature of her father’s death mark the turning point for her full transgression and development of India’s individual self. The appearance of Uncle Charlie, the man who awakens her repressed desires, on her 18th birthday, the day she ‘comes of age’ is yet again an example of the film conflating violent maturity with womanhood. Charlie, transgressive and violent himself, acts as India’s mirror; his arrival enables her to become her true violent self and also provides a sexual awakening, allowing her to move into womanhood. This is physically seen when Charlie gifts India a pair of high heeled shoes for her birthday, a symbol of femininity and maturity and a physical symbol of her change as these replace the shoes she has worn since childhood. This is the final step into her true individuation and with it, she is able to overthrow the power of Charlie, killing off her Shadow and taking sole possession of her true self. In the film’s final moments, India leaves the confined domestic space of her home, heading for New York. Adorning a combination of her mother, father and uncle’s garments, she stalks her prey – an unassuming traffic cop who pulls her over for speeding. Cool and calculated, she stabs him in the neck with garden shears. As he desperately attempts to crawl away, she smiles down at the body and shoots him dead. Blood splatters onto the surrounding wildflowers, an image of violence varnishing over beautiful innocence. She is the ultimate predator now.
by Lilia Pavin-Franks
Lilia Pavin-Franks is a Film and Literature graduate from the University of Warwick. Currently she’s working in film festivals, having been a part of the Events Team at LFF 2019 (where she met and gave Robert De Niro a coffee), and she’ll soon be starting at BFI Flare 2020. She loves films that explore gender and identity, the human psyche and have cats in them (not necessarily all at once). Follow her on Twitter @Lilia_PF and Instagram @liliamayaa
Categories: Feminist Criticism