"Duel in the Sun"
In the Hollywood narrative, as in the visual structure, women signify the erotic. In melodrama, Mulvey argued, the centrality of a female protagonist shifts the narrative focus overtly to sexuality. Pearl's protagonism in Duel in the Sun thus effects a generic shift to melodrama by the foregrounding of sexuality. The opening scene in Duel shows Pearl's mother dancing hollywood-exotica-style. She is surrounded, diegetically, by male spectators. Her exoticism is displayed for the consumption of white men and is also treated as symbolic of phallic-feminine depravity. At the same time, and to the same music, Pearl is dancing outside on the steps of the saloon. Her dance is framed as a more childlike and spontaneous response representing a primitive sexuality — the girl's got rhythm. The opening monologue voiced over the image of 'Sqaw Rock' near which a single desert flower commemorates Pearl's violent death confirms her association with the primitive. Pearl's innocent mimicking of her mother's erotic dance signifies an association with the dark continent of adult femininity as well as the primitive wilderness of America's childhood. Pearl's father punishes her mother's lewd performance and, to protect Pearl from the degenerative tendencies which he perceives in her mixed race origins, he sends her to his genteel former love (symbolising white-feminising domesticity) who is now married to a westerner known as the Senator. Here she meets the split hero personified in the outlaw Lewt and his lawyer brother, Jesse.
The conflict unfolding through the film reflects the classic Western genre theme of a struggle between primitive desires and social responsibility. Mulvey suggested that this conflict here locates within Pearl because her presence as (female) protagonist shifts the narrative to melodrama. But this figure of the dark girl is not uncharacteristic of the Western which is "haunted by the fear of miscegenation . . ." (Buscombe, 1988 : 242). Women of mixed race, or white women married to Native American characters, are classically seen as "contaminated by the primitive" (242) and often personify the male hero's phallic nostalgia. Cawelti's Freudian account of the "dark girl" seems worth quoting at length:
The hero's destruction of the savage in order to protect the chastity of the schoolmarm symbolises the repression of his own spontaneous sexual urges and his acceptance of the monogamous pattern of modern, middle-class life ... In the contemporary western, ... feminine duality shows up in the contrast between the schoolmarm and the dance-hall girl, or between the hero's Mexican or Indian mistress and the WASP girl he may ultimately marry. The dark girl is a feminine embodiment of the hero's savage, spontaneous side. She understands his deep passions, his savage code of honor and his need to use personal violence. The schoolmarm's civilised code of behaviour rejects the passionate urges and the freedom of aggression which mark this side of the hero's character. When the hero becomes involved with the schoolmarm, the dark lady must be destroyed or abandoned. . . The savage symbolises ... brutality [but also] ... the freedom and spontaneity of wilderness life, the sense of personal honour and individual mastery, and the deep camaraderie of men untrammelled by domestic ties ... the role of savage can be played interchangeably by Indians or outlaws. (Cawelti, 1971: 48-53)
Although the male characters are somewhat marginalised in this film, as functions of Pearl's inner conflict, the visual organisation spectacularises her femininity in ways which are typical neither of female-addressed genres, nor of the western-generic tomboy. Pearl is, rather, the classic type of the 'dark-girl' — the emphatically spectacularised phallic-feminine.
It would seem useful to introduce a comparison here with a more classic tomboy figure. The tomboy typically opens a narrative competing with men, passes through a period of sexual confusion, and then closes the story by succumbing to marriage with the hero (Buscombe, 1989: 242). She is usually too sympathetic and innocent a character to be killed off and is characteristically normalised by marriage to the male hero — although this re-naturalisation is often equivocal (Merck, 1980).
Initially, Pearl's narrative does seem to conform to the tomboy mould. Her relationship with Lewt is initially organised around athletic pursuits. He repeatedly humiliates her through athletic competition, however. Firstly, he puts her on a horse which she cannot master and, in a later scene, he prevents her from leaving a swimming hole by exploiting conventions of feminine modesty and an implied threat of rape. Peal's image is increasingly feminine-eroticised as the narrative proceeds whilst Lewt's characterisation builds an overtly phallic domination and the heterosexualising scopic structure takes over.
In the scene in which Lewt visits her room after murdering her fiancé, Pearl is half-lying on a bed pointing a gun at him whilst he is standing. As he approaches her with his back to the extradiagetic spectator Pearl's gun is held level with his crotch. She slowly raises it towards his chest while he tells her she is 'his' girl. This positioning of the gun serves to draw attention to his crotch (which is, classically, visually unavailable, or 'veiled,' by the character having his back to the camera). This foregrounds castration anxiety somewhat more overtly than is customary! He touches her and she half-swoons in erotic surrender as he takes away her gun. The equation of gun with the phallus which is capable of sadistically controlling and disarming the castrating threat of the feminine erotic could not be made clearer. She ends the scene being dragged along the floor with her arms clasped around Lewt's leg as he walks out on her, her feminising degradation complete.
A phallic-controlling, voyeuristic, pleasure is clearly offered to the male spectator in this scene and throughout the film. Eyeline match shots giving Pearl's point of view on Lewt are always from a very low angle, further phallicising Lewt's image and feminising Pearl's. Pearl's self-sacrifice for Jesse's sake (or rather to preserve the 'civilised' order represented by Jesse to which she, herself, can never belong) confirms her classic coding as iconic 'dark girl' who can never be 'civlised' rather than the tomboy whose marriage resolves narrative (and psychological) conflict.
Jesse's socialisation in Duel enervates his ability to use direct violence and he is unable to defend himself from Lewt's physical violence. In classic dark-girl style, Pearl takes on the phallic nobility of the western hero and sacrifices herself to facilitate resolution of the narrative by the hero's marriage to the civilising (white) wife. Abandoning the struggle for feminine social integration, she again becomes a powerful phallic force. She goes after Lewt with a shotgun against his revolver, shooting him first in the groin before also being shot by him. As they die together their narcissistic bond is fully realised.
The hero's (masculinity's) inner struggle played out in the Western is between the primitive pleasures of a phallic-erotic omnipotence and an authoritative integration to the white, male-dominated, order of civilisation (represented by the family). Pearl's 'darkness' outlaws any civil alliance (marriage) and enables her narcissistic bond with Lewt. Her female-coded body, however, effectively disavows the homoeroticism implied in this phallic-narcissistic bond. Pearl effectively stands in for the (split) western hero(outlaw)'s 'native' sidekick:
Leslie Fiedler has pointed out how the theme of good companionship between outcast white and men of darker skin plays a complex role in American literature ... this relationship "symbolically joins the white man to nature and his own unconscious ... and binds him in life-long loyalty to a help-meet, without the sacrifice of his freedom." ... The "code of the West" is in every respect a male ethic and its values and prescriptions relate primarily to the relationships of men ... the presence of women invariably threatens the primacy of the masculine group. In many westerns an interesting resolution of this conflict is worked out. The woman in effect takes over the role of the masculine comrades and becomes the hero's true companion ... " (Cawelti, 1971: 65; quoting Fiedler, 1949)
It is not merely the feminising presence of white women which threatens the masculine group in action films, however. Neale's (1983) analysis of male identification in the genre pointed out that the relay of the phallic gaze is often troubled in action films by the taboo on men looking at the male body — on spectacularising and thus effectively feminising the male figure. Men act, women appear — the male protagonist is meant to disappear as the spatial distance between the spectator and the protagonist is cancelled in the processes of suture. In action movies, the male spectator's look is often disseminated, instead, across the screen space in exchanges of looks between characters in rituals such as the gunfight. As the male spectator looks at the image, his controlling gaze also frames the male body as object of the look implying a fetishistic moment in the male-on-male gaze.
The forbidden pleasure of this gaze onto the image of the male body must be disguised. It could be argued that the substitution of the dark girl for the Native-American male sidekick offers a disavowal of a potential homoeroticisation of the relay in representations of male conflict or intimacy. In much the same way as the male gaze disseminates across the visual space in the Western with homoeroticising results, representation of the conflict between Vienna and Emma in Johnny Guitar, for example, produces a similarly lesbianising effect. Calamity Jane also looks at Adelaide/Kate in one of the performative interludes in the film (by which Calamity Jane also taps into the camp mode of 'temporary transvestism'). In Duel, Lewt's gaze is relayed onto Pearl, a phallic-feminine spectacle, which constantly reiterates a re-heterosexualisation of any instability in the gendering of the relay.
Pearl's presentation also differs fundamentally from the classic iconography of the Western tomboy. Tomboys are not only boyishly athletic but earn an independent living through 'masculine' economic activities such as hunting, trading, gunfighting or driving. They are characteristically presented as brash but a-sexual; often rejecting romance vociferously — until their boyish identity is disturbed by an unwilling attraction towards the hero. They wear highly utilitarian clothing such as jeans, buckskins or military garb. A crucial scene in the classic tomboy narrative is one in which the boy-girl first puts on a dress, leading to a crisis in her androgyne identity. Pearl, on the contrary, is not shown in any economic activity and does not wear male attire at any point in the narrative. Her clothing signifies as feminine and 'ethnic'. It is soft, revealing, flowing and impractical. Her stylisation is highly exoticised which further emphasises her re-feminisation in the visual order. Much is made of the extreme femininity of her body shape both visually and in the dialogue.
The tomboy is not characteristically an outlaw and usually ends the narrative married to the hero. Dark girls, on the other hand, are social outcasts and cannot be integrated. Dark girls and tomboys are both associated with the primitive wilderness, sometimes by a sexual association with outlaws (Johnny Guitar), or by a connection with native Americans: marriage (Soldier Blue); birth (Duel in the Sun); or adoption (The Rose of Cimarron). Dark girls are usually played by brunettes. The typical tomboy is white, however, and usually played by blonde comediennes (Doris Day, Jean Arthur) who symbolise chaste, childlike, wholesomeness. Pearl is played by Jennifer Jones, a brunette with an established star persona as a siren.
Pearl is not, then, the type of the tomboy but actually the type of the phallic-feminine, or 'dark girl.' This may explain why hard-living, crossdressing, tomboy characters such as Vienna, Annie Oakley, Belle Starr, and Calamity Jane are frequently mentioned in lesbian and gay texts (Bell-Metereau, 1993: 83, 87; Sheldon, 1984: 17; Dickens, 1982: 213, 217; Whitaker, 1985: 110; Olson, 1994: 69; Merck, 1980; Modleski, 1995/6: 7) whilst there seems to be no evidence in lesbian or gay secondary texts that Pearl is regarded either as an example of a tomboy or of a crossdresser; nor that she has ever been associated with lesbian audiences.
In terms of Mulvey's psychoanalytic analysis, Duel in the Sun situates Pearl's character in a regressive, Oedipal phallic-narcissism. The narrative concerns her failed efforts to resolve her active desires with, passive, white, heterosexual, femininity. For the white, heterosexual, female spectator, the phallicisation of Pearl's image represents the troublesome 'return of the repressed' which constantly threatens to destabilise heterosexual feminine adjustment. As Mulvey was concerned with finding a positive feminine spectatorial position (or in demonstrating that it cannot be done), she interpreted the instability of Pearl's 'transvestite' feminine representation as of negative value. Mulvey had argued (1975) that the implicitly male spectator of popular film is typically offered a choice between the phallic strategy of controlling voyeurism, or a regressive, fetishistic, pleasure. The female spectator accesses such phallic pleasures by occupying an institutionally masculinised position thus re-living the feminine-foundational struggle between phallic narcissism and feminine passivity. Pearl's struggle represents nothing more than the 'normal' weakness and instability resulting from the repression of active drives which, in Freudian terms, constitutes the heterosexual-feminine character.
If the regression necessary to access the nostalgic pleasures offered by the western leaves the heterosexual female spectator troubled by a residual "masculinity complex" (Mulvey, 1981) and the heterosexual male spectator similarly troubled by a "repressed homosexual voyeurism" (which male gays may, of course, take pleasure in – Neale, 1983: 8), where does it leave the lesbian spectator?