Disruptive Influence: The Enduring Appeal of Some Like It Hot – Suzanne Woodward


There is a clear division in the writings about Billy Wilder’s 1959 cross-dressing musical comedy, Some Like It Hot. Either the film is categorised, and criticized, as a typical cross-dressing farce with the inevitable return to the heterosexual status quo predicated on an indissoluble gender binary; or it is read as a visionary and ebullient transgression of heteronormative gender categories. What these generally divergent discussions of the film share, however, is an implicit acknowledgement that Some Like It Hot stands out from other cross-dressing comedies, attested to by the academic attention it continues to receive in a variety of film discourses and its undiminished popular appeal. In many ways it is prototypical of the cross-dressing comedy sub-genre, but at the same time offers an unusual level of resistance to heteronormative reinstatement by allowing each viewer to interpret the final scene in their own way, and to their own satisfaction.

Mainstream gender-bending film comedies function as a form of sanctioned disruption of the heteronormative order, revealing slippages in the dominant cultural discourse by examining its logic and effects. This disruptive ambiguity is a key element of the act of transgression, which “involves hybridization, the mixing of categories and the questioning of the boundaries that separate categories” (Jervis 1999, 4). Under the aegis of humour, these films can explore the rules and limits of gender intelligibility, for example, by foregrounding assumptions about the clothing, accessories, demeanour, and gestures deemed appropriate for men and women within a naturalised gender binary. By exposing and unsettling hegemonic heteronormative beliefs, they can produce what Marjorie Garber describes as a ‘category crisis’ in received wisdom, “disrupting and calling attention to cultural, social, or aesthetic dissonances” (1992, 16). Garber explains the ‘category crisis’ as “a failure of definitional distinction, a borderline that becomes permeable, that permits border-crossings from one (apparently distinct) category to another,” which impacts not only gender, but other social categories, such as race, class, and religion (ibid). Gender-bending comedies engage, to varying degrees, in a complication of the categories and hierarchy of gender, introducing ambiguity, revelling in the interstitial spaces that they create, and highlighting the permeability of constructed and constricting gender conventions. As these temporary, ritualised rebellions occur within the conventional cultural medium of mainstream film, it is perhaps inevitable that they usually attempt to re-establish the heteronormative status quo. In this regard the narrative resolution is often an important, even over-determined gesture, but disruption cannot necessarily be so neatly contained. It is therefore valuable to consider these comedic transgressions not only as temporarily disrupting the dominant social order, but also revealing its very existence, and it may be difficult to re-cover the boundaries once they have been made visible in such a popular cultural form. Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) is notable for the ways in which it renders these traditional gender and sexual boundaries visible, but in addition, it stands out from other gender-bending comedies because it refuses the conventional reinstatement of a heteronormative status quo.

Gender-bending comedies exploit heteronormative assumptions and conventions to create humour through sex/gender disjuncture and sexual misdirection, and can therefore be interpreted as providing a carnivalesque inversion of gender hierarchies and access to socially taboo experiences and pleasures. Carnivalesque is a concept primarily derived from Bakhtin’s study of Rabelais, which provided “the broad development of the ‘carnivalesque’ into a potent, populist, critical inversion of all official words and hierarchies” (Stallybrass and White 1986, 7). It is an artistic mode in which the transgression and subversive celebration of Medieval carnivals, centred on ritual spectacle, laughter, and the grotesque body, have survived. Stallybrass and White identify the carnivalesque as a resilient, populist, and subversive celebration of the elements of society that are marginalised or suppressed (ibid., 15). In Bakhtin’s analysis, he argues that “carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions” (1984, 10). Although Bakhtin’s work is concerned almost exclusively with class hierarchies, his description could equally be seen as applying to heteronormative hierarchies identified by feminist and queer theorists.

Carnivalesque also offers a useful point of intersection between social practice and artistic form, and the “carnival becomes the literary ‘carnivalesque’ through a partial subordination to an ordering discourse” (Hall 1985, 128). In the case of gender-bending films as carnivalesque, the ordering discourse is most noticeable in the well-established and recognised genre conventions that structure and attempt to contain these representations. As genre texts produced predominantly by mainstream Hollywood, these structured subversions have tended to be denigrated as essentially conservative texts that use temporary transgression as a means of re-establishing heteronormative authority. This bears a marked similarity to critiques levelled at the carnivalesque and, as Stallybrass and White have observed, the “most politically thoughtful commentators wonder… whether the ‘licensed release’ of carnival is not simply a form of social control of the low by the high and therefore serves the interests of that very official culture which it apparently opposes” (1986, 13). However, they argue decisively that “it actually makes little sense to fight out the issue of whether or not carnivals are intrinsically radical or conservative, for to do so automatically involves false essentialising of carnivalesque transgression.” (ibid., 14). This argument applies equally well to prevailing critiques of mainstream trans films as licensed complicity, as they reveal a similar tendency to make definitive judgements that rely on reading the films as ideologically monovalent and monolithic. Yet, as Julian Wolfreys argues,

carnival is both transgressive and authorized, it is both critical of social order and complicit with it… [but] the ambiguity of the carnivalesque renders a single reading of it undecidable… We must comprehend carnival not as a form of universal political response to conditions of political oppression and containment, but instead as an ongoing strategic interruption in social norms, in ideological containment, and in corporeal order and propriety” (2002, 28-29).

Using a similar approach to understand gender-bending films allows for an investigation of the multiple ways in which they can construct and deconstruct meaning, and both contain and fail to contain transgression.

The ambiguity and duality of the carnivalesque, as something simultaneously disruptive and contained, transgressive and conventional, can be seen as parallel in many ways to the internal contradictions of what Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni (1971) describe as ‘category e’ films. Comolli and Narboni argue that although “every film is political,” some films provide “free and unhampered passage” to ideology while others present an ideological “dislocation” despite their apparently conventional generic form (ibid., 29-30). ‘Category e’ films “seem at first sight to belong firmly within the ideology and to be completely under its sway, but turn out to be so only in an ambiguous manner” (ibid., 32).These ideological cracks, which Comolli and Narboni situate in the dislocation between form and content, are arguably present in mainstream gender-bending films because of their combination of formulaic generic structure and disruptive gender politics in terms of content.  Some Like It Hot, however, fits more obviously into Comolli and Narboni’s category of the ‘e’ film, as an example of what Barbara Klinger calls a “progressive text” (1984, 33). It is a film which, “while fully integrated within dominant cinema, ‘ends up by partially dismantling the system from within’” (ibid.). As will be explored below, many aspects of the narrative form could be classified as standard genre conventions, and the content undoubtedly disrupts traditional gender boundaries, but the textual politics of Some Like It Hot are also complicated by its deviation from generic norms, primarily in its refusal to recuperate the disruption in accordance with the traditions of the persistently popular gender-bending comedy film.

When the American Film Institute released its list of the hundred funniest films ever made, the top two places were both held by gender-bending comedies – Some Like It Hot in first place, and Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982) in second place. This is a striking illustration of the enduring influence of these films as generic templates for gender-bending comedy films, but also indicates the immense popular appeal of gender transgression as a comedic device. These films exploit heteronormative assumptions and conventions to create humour through sex/gender disjuncture and sexual misdirection. Gender constraints, like all systems of social power, place pressure upon those who are subject to them, and the ubiquity of heteronormative regulation means that no-one is exempt from that pressure. Humour has long served as a way to relieve the strain of normative conformity and it is unsurprising that this social ‘safety valve’ should have found its way into the popular cultural medium of film, providing a temporary and contained escape. In so doing, such films function in many instances to facilitate the preservation of the dominant ideologies regarding sex, gender and sexuality, but at the same time expose cracks in the ideological surface.

Gender-bending comedies employ an established set of iconographic, thematic, and narrative conventions, almost always concluding with an overt affirmation of heteronormativity. The gender transgression is usually represented as resulting from circumstantial necessity rather than from a sense of dissonant identity. The gender disguise is permitted only out of absolute necessity and only as long as the need or threat persists, a common plot device that Marjorie Garber describes as “the progress narrative” (1992, 8), and Chris Straayer as “the temporary transvestite film” (1996, 42). As Annette Kuhn points out, “sexual disguise must usually be accounted for” (Kuhn 1985, 57). Straayer recognises, as does Garber, that the transvestism is only considered acceptable because of the narrative framework in which it is presented. Male characters usually cross the gender boundary in a desperate attempt to hide from something (most commonly the law, dangerous criminals, or shrewish wives), as a consequence of public disgrace that has caused them to be ostracized from their ‘rightful’ male position, or as a cunning ploy to trap the villain. Such cross-dressing comedy narratives invariably end with the revelation – forced or voluntary – of the protagonist’s ‘true’ sex, a return to the ‘natural’ heteronormative position, and often with a heterosexual coupling that underscores the ‘proper’ gender identity of that character.

The cross-dressing comedies constitute a genre in their own right, or at least a recognised sub-genre of comedy. As is necessary for generic constitution, there are specific “expectations, categories, labels and names, discourses, texts and groups or corpuses of texts, and the conventions that govern them all” (Neale 2000, 3). The pivotal position Some Like It Hot occupies, historically and structurally, in the cross-dressing comedy corpus has profound significance for understanding the specific conventions that are manifested or disrupted. It highlights the conventions of cross-dressing comedy, established over several decades through films representing the cross-dressed image, as they are defined and defied through Some Like It Hot. These films share certain conventions; the evocation and subsequent affirmation or rejection of these conventions in Some Like It Hot may suggest a typical structure and illustrate the ways in which this film defies convention. On the surface, the cross-dressing comedies have conventionally functioned as affirmations of masculine and feminine gender roles, and the importance of those roles within the heterosexual framework evoked by the use of romantic coupling to resolve a film. As the film that is arguably most famous in the cross-dressing comedy sub-genre, Some Like It Hot is also the one that most overtly refuses this heterosexual convention, at the same time that it accedes to it.

There is a clear division in the writings about Billy Wilder’s 1959 cross-dressing musical comedy, with theorists and critics firmly placed in one of two camps. Either the film is categorised, and criticized, as a typical cross-dressing farce with the inevitable return to the heterosexual status quo predicated on an indissoluble gender binary; or it is read as a visionary and ebullient transgression of heteronormative gender categories. While a range of justifications are provided for both interpretations, for the most part there is a tendency to see only those examples from the film that fit with the chosen interpretation, and to focus on the ending of the film as providing definitive proof. What these generally divergent discussions of the film share, however, is an implicit acknowledgement that Some Like It Hot stands out from other cross-dressing comedies, attested to by the academic attention it continues to receive in a variety of film discourses, including auteurism, genre theory, queer theory and feminist theory. It also enjoys an undiminished popular appeal. While most other cross-dressing comedies fade rapidly from public memory, Some Like It Hot’s story of two musicians on the run from the mob in the 1920s is remarkably well-known considering that it is almost fifty years old. Several factors have contributed to the sustained interest in the film: the sexual innuendos are still risqué even by today’s standards, the jokes are still funny, and the quality of direction and performance is still greatly admired.[1] The most intriguing factor, in relation to this discussion, is the power of the film’s ending still to surprise and perplex viewers.

The category disruptions at work in the film make it inevitably difficult to choose terms with which to describe the characters. Despite performing on stage as women, Joe/Josephine and Jerry/Daphne are not drag queens. They adopt feminine attire out of necessity, as the only way to avoid being ‘eliminated’ by Spats and his mobsters after witnessing the Valentine’s Day Massacre. This use of cross-dressing is a functional device with clear narrative motivation, a circumstantial gender illusion that is carefully dissociated – at least, initially – from any suggestion of an internal transgender identification. Jerry and Joe do not turn into Daphne and Josephine by choice, which differentiates them from cross-dressers or transvestites in the conventional sense of these terms as designating a sense of gendered self. Nonetheless, as male characters in women’s clothes, they are literally cross-dressers, transgressing the accepted sartorial protocols of gender. More importantly, audiences recognise them as such, through the familiar conventions of cross-dressing comedy.

Despite the originating reasons for their enforced adoption of feminine appearances, Joe and Jerry are not portrayed in the typical way, as merely enduring their gender disguises; Joe takes his performance as Josephine very seriously, and Jerry enthusiastically embraces his new persona as Daphne, becoming increasingly committed to his cross-dressed identity. Josephine and Daphne are both able to ‘pass’ within the diegetic world, to such a degree that Daphne elicits a marriage proposal from a self-confessed womanizer. Nevertheless, when the threat of death by tommy gun has been neutralized, both characters ‘out’ themselves, albeit with substantially different consequences. However convincing Daphne and Josephine may have been within the diegesis, the audience has not forgotten their initial identities, and their continued disguises are diegetically justified by the reappearance of the mob. The dramatic irony in the spectators’ awareness of their original identities, and the compulsive reasons for their gender disguise, functions in conjunction with their believability within the diegesis to evoke humour and transform a period gangster film into a comedy.

The mise-en-scene in the opening scene of the film is not that of a conventional comedy.  Rather it establishes the dark, masculine underworld of Chicago in the 1920s – the wet, dark streets, the tension of the car chase, tommy guns and coffins, mobsters and cops. These images appear to situate Some Like It Hot clearly in the genre of the gangster film, a classification reinforced by the appearance of George Raft in one of his “most memorable gangster roles” (McCarty 2004, 146). This is just one of several categories that Wilder will disrupt; by the end the film will have become a multi-layered illustration of category crises at work. The setting is also noteworthy in that the cold, dark streets of Chicago are starkly contrasted with the sunny wonderland of Florida. More importantly, the journey that the characters undergo in their identity transformation is mirrored, as in so many other cross-dressing films, by a physical journey. The physical journey creates a liminal space where the transition from one identity to another is facilitated by a physical departure from the ‘old’ life of the character and an adventure into something new, transporting and transgressing at the same time.

The historical setting of the film is highly significant, allowing for many narrative parallels to be drawn between Prohibition, “the film’s encompassing metaphor,” and gender transgression (Lieberfeld & Sanders 1998, 130). As Lieberfeld and Sanders argue, “Prohibition serves to make transgression commonplace, privileging gratification and necessitating pretense, blurring the lines between normality and deviance for ‘ordinary citizens’” (ibid.). The criminalisation of alcohol, something that many Western adults now take for granted as a social right, functions as an interesting illustration of how easily an activity of pleasure and personal choice can be subsumed under institutionalised morality. In addition, the historical setting provides crucial reassurance to the potentially transphobic viewer, by creating a safe distance from the site of transgression. As co-writer I.A.L. Diamond points out, “when everybody’s dress looks eccentric, somebody in drag looks no more peculiar than anyone else” (in Sikov 1998, 409). From a technical point of view, it provides a useful justification for filming in black and white, which serves to hide many of the flaws in the feminine disguises of the two protagonists, making Daphne and Josephine look more passable than they would have done in colour. The success of this aesthetic choice becomes apparent when black and white stills are compared to colour photographs from the set:

Figure 1. Tony Curtis as Josephine and Jack Lemmon as Daphne in Some Like It Hot (MGM/UA, 1959)

Figure 2: Marilyn Monroe as Sugar and Jack Lemmon as Josephine.

Daphne and Josephine’s ability to pass diegetically is crucial because, as Rebecca Bell-Metereau points out,

What distinguishes Hot from the British and American products of the previous twenty odd years, however, is the fact that Lemmon and Curtis (in particular) make rather attractive women who are obviously young and available. This peculiar situation of having male characters with feminine appeal offers a singular threat to heterosexual male audience members, but the theme has nevertheless struck a responsive chord (1993, 64).

To have young and relatively attractive cross-dressed protagonists re-introduces an element of sexualisation into the cross-dressing comedy, after its noticeable absence under the Production Code.

Stella Bruzzi (1997) identifies the desexualisation of ‘the transvestite’ as the defining difference between ‘cross-dressing’ and ‘androgyny’ as disparate manifestations of transvestism in film. She argues that “whereas in cinema cross-dressing is used to desexualise the transvestite and deflect the potential subversiveness of the image through comedy, androgyny sexualises the transvestite by increasing the eroticism of their ambiguous image” (ibid., 147). Bruzzi privileges androgyny[2] as the only genuine form of transgression, although she singles out Some Like It Hot as a rarity among cross-dressing comedies for its awareness of its own “potential deviancy” and exultant “perversity” (ibid., 158). Unlike Bell-Metereau she does not link this to, or recognize, the sexual element in Some Like It Hot, despite the obvious pleasure that Daphne begins to take in her flirtation with Osgood. Lieberfeld and Sanders argue that Daphne and Josephine are only attractive to “odd little buffoons” (1998, 130), but while their suitors may not be conventional Hollywood heartthrobs, it seems noteworthy that these “brand new girls” are convincingly attractive to a number of men within the diegesis. This sexual appeal adds a different dimension to the cross-dressing comedy, creating another level of transgression in terms of a testing of boundaries, by introducing implied homosexual encounters. It is the category crisis at work again.

The sexualisation of the two cross-dressed protagonists that has sometimes been ignored or misread by critics is explicitly indicated by the very first shot of them in their feminine disguises. It is juxtaposed almost immediately with the hyper-eroticised revelation of Sugar Cane (Marilyn Monroe), and the framing of Monroe has often drawn attention away from the crucial framing of Josephine and Daphne:

Figure 3. Sugar Cane (Marilyn Monroe)

Lieberfeld and Sanders, for example, identify this shot of Monroe as a perfect example of Laura Mulvey’s argument about the “fragmentation” of female characters by the camera and how the gaze “feminizes its object” (1998, 134). John Phillips also refers to this scene as a key moment in the signification of consistent heterosexuality:

From beginning to end, the norms of heterosexuality and gender fixity are constantly re-emphasised and sustained, principally by the pursuit, initially by Jerry and then by Joe, of the delectable Sugar to whom they are instantly and powerfully attracted. ‘It’s like Jell-O on springs!’ an enraptured Jerry tells Joe as the two men gaze lustfully at Sugar’s hip-swaying and bottom-wiggling movements for the first time. (2006, 61)

Because the shot of Monroe’s undulating bottom fits so well into Mulvey’s tripartite schema of the voyeuristic gaze – camera, character, spectator – these critics read Joe and Jerry as fulfilling this conventional masculine role. As Sugar hurries past, the camera leaves her to linger on the expressions of Joe/Josephine and Jerry/Daphne as they gaze after her, after which there is a cut to a point-of-view shot of Sugar’s backside, as she is suddenly startled by a well-aimed blast of steam. However, the shots of and dialogue between Daphne and Josephine suggest that the gaze is not actually so straightforwardly heterocentric.

The scene opens with a medium long shot of two pairs of legs in heels and skirts. While Wilder and/or Lang (the cinematographer) is very effectively reproducing the fragmentary shot identified by Mulvey sixteen years later, it is both a self-aware joke that may fool the unsuspecting viewer into looking with desire at these legs, and a way of persuading the viewer used to these cinematographic conventions to accept these two characters as women. While the audience is aware in the rest of the film that Josephine and Daphne are males, they need to believe that others within the diegesis could be fooled and at this introductory shot both strikingly denies privileged spectator knowledge and provides compelling proof of their believability.

Figure 4. Daphne and Josephine

Their identity is soon revealed to the audience, as Jerry stumbles in his heels. The film then offers a mocking comment on the way the audience’s gaze has been manipulated with Jerry complaining that he “feels so naked. Like everybody’s looking at me.” To which Joe replies, “With those legs? Are you crazy?” Jerry/ Daphne’s awkwardness makes it hard to view him/her as an erotic spectacle, but Josephine is already executing a passable feminine performance. This deliberate and self-aware use of a cinematographic convention makes it almost impossible to view the same shot of Monroe as straightforward reinforcement of the patriarchal cinematic process described by Mulvey. It should instead be read as a confirmation of Wilder’s desire to play with conventional iconography, and as again opening up the potential sexualisation of the male-to-female cross-dresser.

What is also noteworthy about the first shot of Josephine and Daphne at the train station is that we don’t see any of the physical process of transformation such as the shaving of legs, applying of make-up or donning of wigs. In most cross-dressing comedies this process is carefully displayed so that we can never forget that the characters are actually male underneath, as was the case with the German precursor to Some Like It Hot, Fanfaren der Liebe (Kurt Hoffman, 1951). “As I.A.L. Diamond later recalled, Fanfaren das (sic) Liebe was ‘heavy-handed and Germanic. There was a lot of shaving of chests and trying on of wigs’” (Sikov 1998, 409). Some Like It Hot, on the other hand, through this narrative ellipsis, offers an almost magical transformation that makes it easier for us to believe in the masquerade, largely because it appears to be so effortless: “Wilder called this the power of omission” (Chandler 2002, 219). The only indicator of the process of transition, Jerry’s initial awkwardness in heels and discomfort in her ‘drafty’ dress, rapidly disappear as soon as she introduces herself to Sweet Sue, the band leader, and decides in the moment that he opens his mouth to become Daphne rather than Geraldine as originally intended. The choice of name suggests that Daphne is more than Jerry in a feminine disguise, but an entirely separate personality. As Charles Taylor points out in his review of the film,

When he first enters in drag, all he can do is complain about how drafty his dress is and how tough it is to walk in heels. By the end of the movie he’s so comfortable in heels that he wears them without thinking, giving himself away. But his transition starts long before then. Jerry introduces himself as “Daphne,” instead of the agreed-upon “Geraldine.” And there’s a crestfallen look on his face when Sugar tells him that she envies him being “so flat-chested” (2002).

Joe and Jerry engage in different forms of deception: while Joe uses his disguises as dissimulation, to hide his real identity from Sugar and the mob, Jerry fabricates a convincing new personality, a simulation that becomes as believable as his original identity, as illustrated by ‘her’ exuberant delight in ‘her’ engagement.

Although Joe’s transformation is less comprehensive than Jerry’s, both characters find the feminine world a welcoming alternative to the violent mob world from which they have just escaped. Bell-Metereau argues that, “Hot sets up two realms – the frightening, masculine underworld of the city, and the comforting, feminine refuge of the all-girl band – and it is clear that any sane person would choose the latter” (1993, 56). But this interpretation unfortunately serves to reinforce a very conventional gender dichotomy, one which the film itself refuses to accept. At the end of the film, the two couples escape from both worlds, sailing off into an undetermined and undefined future on Osgood’s luxury yacht. It is the ending which has perhaps provoked the most debate regarding the transgressiveness of the film. Some critics, such as Lieberfeld and Sanders and Phillips, see the ending as a reconstitution of the gender and sexual status quo through the heterosexual coupling of Joe and Sugar, and the relationship between Osgood and Daphne as nothing more than a doomed joke, reading Osgood’s famous last line, “Well, nobody’s perfect” as entirely flippant. These critics point to the castration anxiety evident in Jerry’s horror at the idea of being ‘altered’ as justification for this reading. Other critics see the ending as open-ended, as “replete with possibility” (Bell-Metereau 1993, 59) and as a rare instance where “perversity wins over legitimacy” (Bruzzi 1997, 158), although Straayer acknowledges that despite ending with gender transgression, the film also “provide(s) the requisite heterosexual closure through other characters” (1996, 419).

Significantly, in terms of the identity politics of the film, while Joe clearly demonstrates his heterosexual desire for Sugar, Daphne’s initial response is portrayed as envious admiration rather than the lust that he later displays in the bunk scene. The look on Joe’s face is contemplative and highly focused – suggesting that his devious pursuit of Sugar is sparked at this very first moment. The difference in the way Joe and Jerry gaze after Sugar is highlighted by the use of a medium two-shot that enables a direct comparison of their responses through their facial expressions. Jerry’s fascination is reinforced by his next lines, “Look at that! Look at how she moves! It’s just like Jell-O on springs. Must have some sort of built-in motor or something. I tell ya it’s a whole different sex!” This initial desire to understand the way in which the mysterious Other works, is quickly abandoned as Jerry’s exuberant alter ego, Daphne, makes her first appearance. Daphne cannot emulate the hyper-femininity of Sugar, so doesn’t try, but seems to revel in being a confident, extroverted woman, a marked shift from Jerry’s diffident acquiescence to Joe’s whims.

The moment where the protagonists board the train marks a crucial turning point in the identity of Jerry and the point of divergence between him and Josephine. While Joe switches identities several times throughout the rest of the film, the spectator sees Jerry as Daphne for almost the rest of the film. These differing approaches to cross-dressing are signalled by the wigs Joe and Jerry have chosen. Their agent, Poliakoff, has explained to Joe and Jerry that you have to be blonde to be part of the band and Daphne’s blond wig suggests that she will be more fully integrated into the band than Josephine in her brunette wig. The importance of names is also made clear in this scene where Jerry, who has exhibited some initial resistance to the female disguise, despite it being his idea, decides to embrace it with flamboyant enthusiasm by choosing the name Daphne instead of Geraldine. It is a moment of self-revelation that seems to take him by surprise as much as it does Joe. It suggests that Jerry is not going to be merely a man in a dress, which is what Joe is, however convincingly. While Jerry’s heterosexuality is initially affirmed by his delight in all the ‘butter and sugar’, his heterosexual attentions diminish with noticeable rapidity as he revels in being one of the girls, so that by the time they reach Florida and the physical journey is complete, so it seems is his identity transformation, and he makes only a brief protest against their continued masquerade, before submitting once again to Joe’s dominance. Joe, on the other hand, makes his heterosexual interest in Sugar clear to the audience throughout the film. He uses Josephine to elicit useful seduction information, which he then utilises by exchanging his gender disguise for a class disguise, indicated through both his clothes and his Cary Grant-inspired manner of speaking. He adopts the persona of Junior, heir to the Shell Oil fortune, in order to exploit Sugar’s desire to escape her working-class life but inadvertently develops genuine feelings for her in the midst of his manipulation and lies. Ironically for a 1950s mainstream comedy, Daphne and Osgood’s queer relationship seems much more sincere in comparison.

In the predominantly conservative United States of the 1950s, the public response to this shift was marked by both enthusiasm and revulsion. “Upon its original release, Kansas banned the film from being shown in the state, explaining that cross-dressing was ‘too disturbing for Kansans’” (IMDB, 2008). Even in 1967, Judith Christ was disturbed by the humorous treatment of gender disguise, observing in a moralistic condemnation of the film that

It is in Some Like It Hot, made in 1959, that the smut starts to show… you start to notice that for every raucous and/or ribald masquerade joke there is another that involves a transvestite leer, a homosexual ‘in’ joke or a perverse gag. Here is the prurience, the perversion, the sexual sickness that is obsessing the characters and plots of our films. (in Bell-Metereau 1993, 24)

This suggests that the transgressive nature of gender disguise had the useful effect of bringing into sharp relief the exact location and nature of normalized gender and sexual categories of the time. Questioning these established categories serves both to test their durability and to announce the existence of alternative identities. A.H. Weiler’s New York Times review in 1959 was far more open-minded: “Who gets whom is not particularly important,” although Weiler does allow that some viewers might “question the taste of a few of the lines, situations and prolonged masquerade” (1959, np). It is interesting that he perceives the audience as more likely to question the sustained masquerade than to worry about who gets whom. It suggests that everything within the progress narrative is indeed excusable, as long as there is regular relief for the audience from the apparently uncomfortable sight of a man in a dress.

The genre blending of the film evidently concerned some reviewers as much, if not more, than the gender bending. The Sight and Sound review, while aware of the potentially provocative nature of the film’s sexual transgression, seems primarily concerned by the “painfully accurate re-creations of gangland slaughter” rendering the film’s “opportunities for offence… considerable” (Dyer 1959, 173). Dyer responds positively to Lemmon’s “extravagant” performance, although he finds Curtis “a shade too real for comfort” (ibid). It would seem that Daphne escapes judgement, and therefore heteronormative resistance, because her boisterous representation of femininity fails to arouse the reviewer sexually, with her “husky squeaks and girlish dormitory confidences” (ibid.). In another generally positive response, the Variety reviewer states, “On this plot skeleton, Wilder has put the flesh of farce. He has done this so deftly that the ridiculous somehow appears possible, and the shocking turns into laughter” (Variety 1959, np). This response illustrates the power of the cross-dressing comedy to violate normative boundaries in a way that is perceived to be non-threatening but still leaves the viewer with an awareness that transgression has occurred. “But the momentum of this madcap comedy is such that it just keeps rolling along, a gay romp that knows just when to draw back before crossing the line to the vulgar” (ibid). The Monthly Film Bulletin reviewer similarly identifies the dangerous balancing act of the film as “how to be funny as well as vulgar” (P.H. 1959, 69). To stray too far in either direction would render the film either unacceptable to mainstream audiences, or too generically bland to elicit any critical appreciation.

This contemporary perception of the film’s vulgarity was probably prompted in part by the trailer for the film, which foregrounds Monroe as its star, and emphasizes the film as a comedy. But it also showcases the violence and highlights the sexual nature of the comedy, with plenty of attention focused on Monroe’s breasts, claiming “You’ve never laughed more at sex, or a picture about it,” featuring Monroe and “her bosom companions.” Monroe’s costumes are clearly designed to highlight her sexuality; they are extremely revealing, a fact the trailer makes the most of in exploiting Monroe’s status as a sexual icon.  While the ‘vulgarity’ may be inconsequential for audiences today, the transgressive elements of the film have endured: Osgood’s response to Daphne’s revelation, his acceptance of Jerry’s biology as well as Daphne’s personality still has the power to surprise an audience well-versed in representations of the desexualised cross-dresser.

These visible disruptions and moments of comedy and moral anxiety are emphasised when they are situated in the physical spaces that are traditionally both the most rigidly gender-regulated and the most taboo in mainstream representations, such as bathrooms. Jerry heads automatically for the men’s room on the train and is forcefully pulled back by Joe, detaching one of his fake breasts in the process. On entering the taboo space of the women’s toilet, both are awestruck and delighted by the visual feast that awaits them behind the curtain – Sugar Cane (Marilyn Monroe) displaying her beautifully stockinged thigh. Jerry compares this sudden, unlimited access to the forbidden to childhood fantasies of unlimited indulgence:

Jerry:               When I was a kid, I used to have a dream – I was locked up in this pastry shop overnight – with all kinds of goodies around – jelly rolls and mocha éclairs and sponge cake and Boston cream pie and cherry tarts…

Joe:                  Listen, stupe – no butter and no pastry. We’re on a diet!

Jerry, previously the more reluctant cross-dresser, is inspired to commit to his Daphne identity as he sees the hidden erotic spectacles that become available to him as Daphne, spectacles in which he is shown gleefully indulging at band practice, and at bed time, in a sustained close-up of his face, as he observes the rest of the band members undressing. But his lack of involvement or directed interest in any other woman suggests that his apparent desire for Sugar is less predatory and will be less persistent than Joe’s.

The bed is another locus of humorous anxiety in the cross-dressing comedy, where the threat of being found out is far greater. In Some Like It Hot the berths on the train, like the ladies’ room, are curtained, reinforcing the narrative motifs of hidden and compartmentalised identities. When Sugar, in a flimsy black negligee, climbs into bed with Daphne (Fig. 2), the sexual tension increases, as does the narrative tension, heightened as it is by the risk of discovery. This tension seems to increase the more lascivious Jerry gets, yet as he gets drunker and less inhibited, his own attempts to persuade himself, “I’m a girl, I’m a girl, I’m a girl” appear to be working. The viewer likewise is becoming increasingly engaged with Daphne, who moves further away from Jerry the further the train gets from Chicago. The physical distance that separates the characters from their original location mirrors the increasing distance between the identities of Jerry and Daphne. One scene was fortuitously cut from the film after the preview screening – one in which Daphne climbs into Sugar’s bed and confesses her ‘true’ identity, symbolically removing her wig according to the generic conventions, only to find herself in bed with Joe, who has switched with Sugar (Lally 1996, 291). The feeling of the film, and particularly the audience’s understanding of and empathy with Daphne, would be structurally damaged by a premature de-wigging scene. Part of the reason that the film is so engaging is the commitment that Jerry demonstrates to the Daphne persona, presenting an unusually enthusiastic engagement with gender transgression. The humour and surprise of the famous ending are effected largely through the sustained and immersive coherence of Daphne’s character, setting the film apart from its more formulaic genre relations.

The comedic concept of cross-dressed men that lies at the centre of Some Like It Hot is not original in itself, and several contemporary critics found the central gag of men in dresses too hackneyed:  “an ancient gag” (in Weiler 1959, 16), “a small joke milked like a dairy” (Variety Staff 1959, np). But Osgood’s final words after Daphne admits she is a man, “Well, nobody’s perfect,” provide a highly original punch-line. This ending explicitly refuses a neat resolution of the confusion created by the cross-dressing, leaving the characters and the audience literally ‘at sea’. As Wartenberg points out,

The pair in the stern appears to be lesbian, the one in the bow heterosexual… the former couple seems unlikely, transgressive of the social norm specifying that romantic couples must be composed of a man and a woman. The situation… is really the opposite of what it seems. (Wartenberg 1999, 1)

However, the dual-gendered identity of the cross-dressed protagonists makes a clear categorisation of sexuality difficult. Joe and Jerry have just escaped frantic chase by the mob, Sugar having been publicly kissed by ‘Josephine’ has seen through all of Joe’s disguises and followed him anyway, and Osgood is happily reunited with Daphne, his intended bride. With the sun setting in the background, the two couples ride off in Osgood’s motor boat, with Osgood and Daphne in front, and Josephine and Sugar taking the back seat, literally and symbolically, as the final shot of the film belongs solely to Osgood and Daphne/Jerry.

Setting this scene in a small boat creates a physically constraining environment that is paradoxically part of an escape into the enormous space of the open sea. The narrative tension resolved, the need for disguise falls away, and Josephine and Daphne are free to reveal themselves as Joe and Jerry to Sugar and Osgood respectively. Sugar predictably forgives Joe, and they disappear from view in a passionate embrace, re-establishing a stable heterosexual status quo. Joe ‘de-wigs’ in a selfless attempt to dissuade Sugar from committing herself to another “no goodnick” saxophone player. The de-wigging process is a key convention of cross-dressing comedies, and can in itself define the character of that representation. Those films where the characters choose to reveal themselves, as opposed to being forcefully exposed, present a more positive and subjective form of cross-dressing. It is notable that neither Sugar nor Osgood are shocked when Josephine and Daphne remove their wigs and drop their vocal registers, Sugar because she already knows, and Osgood because Daphne/Jerry’s biology genuinely makes no difference. Both couples remain visually united in medium two-shots that reinforce their status as couples. Interestingly it is Jerry and Joe who have shared most of the other two-shots in the film; in one instance, in Poliakoff’s office, they are even holding hands. They are the couple who get the least, if any, attention in discussions of the ending, and yet it is significant that their strong relationship, coded primarily within the buddy motif, has survived all of the tests and distractions that have been thrown at it. There is never any suggestion that they will part, even when they both find other partners, but attention is diverted from this coupling by the comedy and romance of the other two couplings.

The heterosexual coupling which marks the closure of category disruptions in most cross-dressing comedies, in this case is the coupling of two screen idols, Curtis and Monroe, a very reassuring antidote for a transphobic viewer to any previous deviancy in the film. It does affirm both stable binary gender roles and heterosexuality, although both have learned non-typical traits during the course of the narrative (Joe has learned consideration and sincerity, and Sugar has learned self-assertiveness), and despite the fact that they have engaged in a seemingly lesbian kiss. But they are not the main focus of the final scene; they function as a very effective distraction. Osgood and Jerry are of more interest, both because they get the final screen time and because they provide the transgressiveness of the ending. Daphne voluntarily removes her wig, rather than being exposed and humiliated, but keeps the earrings and make-up. While offering several double-coded excuses for why she can’t marry Osgood, none of which he accepts, at no point does she say that she doesn’t want to. Daphne has listed all of her reasons for wanting to marry Osgood and none of them have been invalidated. Jerry’s resistance to being ‘altered’ need not be read as a complete rejection of the idea of keeping the personality of Daphne and her relationship with Osgood, but rather as careful distinction between a transvestite and a transsexual identity.

That Jerry/Daphne could wish to remain male, while still dressing/acting as a woman in an implied heterosexual but actually homosexual relationship, seems to be too sophisticated a concept for most critics, who appear to want a definitive answer. It is the presentation of this category-defying identity, and Osgood’s total acceptance of it, that sets Some Like It Hot apart from other films in the temporary cross-dressing comedy genre. Daphne’s revelation does not have the expected effect of shocking or angering Osgood into rejection, nor of exciting or delighting him. He is entirely unfazed, but the reason for this and its implications are left to the interpretation of the viewer. Every other aspect of the narrative may have been normatively resolved, categorized and explained, yet this unusual couple is distanced from that resolution, quite clearly bound together by their physical environment but left in an open condition that deliberately resists categorisation or explanation.

The unusual nature of the final scene between Daphne/Jerry and Osgood is illustrated by its difference from the ending of its German predecessor, Fanfaren der Liebe.[3] Although Some Like It Hot is not a direct remake of this film, Wilder and Diamond “based [it] on Fanfaren das Liebe (sic)…though neither was especially fond of that film. They liked its basic premise” (Sikov 1998, 109).

Figure 5. Fanfaren der Liebe (Neue Deutsche Filmgesellschaft, 1951)


In writing the screenplay for Some Like It Hot, they chose to use only the cross-dressing section of the plot of the German film, which included two other disguises initially adopted by the protagonists, Hans and Peter – gypsy impersonations and the use of blackface (Sikov 1998, 109). In the earlier German version, the male protagonists both end up in heterosexual couples with female members of the band, and the original contains no version of the Osgood/Daphne relationship. In fact Joe’s equivalent character ends up coupled with the leader of the band (Ginibre 2005, 12). In contrast, the open-ended nature of Osgood’s final statement presents the viewer with a truism, but without any attempt to control the ‘truth’ that each spectator can choose to construct from it.

The ending of Some Like It Hot differs not only from the films that preceded it. In a recent successor of Some Like It Hot, Connie and Carla (Michael Lembeck, 2004), the two protagonists are singers on the run from gangsters after they witness a shooting in a Chicago garage. In this film, however, they are females who hide out by cross-dressing as male drag queens, revealing indebtedness also to Victor/Victoria (Blake Edwards, 1982). The resolution of Connie and Carla places both of the protagonists back into tidy heterosexual couples. Having been forced to reveal themselves on stage, by flashing their breasts, after the mobsters track them down, both are given the conventional happy ending of a heterosexual union, superficially resolving any confusion generated during their stint as drag queens. The normativity of the resolution is somewhat undermined by taking place on stage in a drag club, with Connie and Carla surrounded by drag queens and Debbie Reynolds, giving a camp cameo performance. Despite the similarities in plot, Some Like It Hot stands apart from these other films in that, at the end, it most overtly refuses a complete reinstatement of the status quo, and actively resists a closed, monovalent interpretation despite the conventional coupling of Sugar and Joe.

The stereotypical heterosexual coupling is undoubtedly important, as a reassurance and as that which allows the lack of containment in Osgood and Daphne’s relationship by keeping it hidden in plain view. It is not, however, the image with which we are left at the end of the film. Instead we are left with the smiling face of Osgood, and finally the nonplussed face of Daphne/Jerry, in make-up and earrings and a woman’s coat but without the wig. The bewilderment could be read as suggesting that Jerry is flummoxed as to how he will escape his commitment to Osgood, or that he is pleasantly surprised at his fiancé’s open-mindedness. But more important than the precise meaning of Jerry/Daphne’s bewilderment is the mere presence of that bewilderment at all. The conventions of the typical cross-dressing comedy require that all possible confusion is neatly resolved and contained by the end of the film. Some Like It Hot allows the confusion to continue, and thereby allows each viewer to interpret the final scene in their own way, and to their own satisfaction. As the screen fades to black on Daphne/Jerry’s nonplussed face, the disruptions of gender and sexual boundaries remain unresolved with regard to these two characters, making any definitive categorization impossible regarding their identities, or the nature of their relationship. This is perhaps the most significant facet of the film’s popularity, that each viewer can construct the ending as happy regardless of their own particular ideology and preferences.


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Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Bakhtin Reader: selected writings of Bakhtin, Medvedev, and Voloshinov. London; New York: E. Arnold, 1994.

Bell-Metereau, Rebecca. Hollywood Androgyny. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Bruzzi, Stella. Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies. London; New York: Routledge, 1997.

Chandler, Charlotte. Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography. London: Simon & Schuster, 2002.

Comolli, Jean-Louis and Jean Narboni. “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism.” Screen 12, no.1 (Spring 1971): 27-36.

Dyer, P. J. “Film Reviews: Some Like It Hot.” Sight and Sound 28, no. 3/4 (1959): 153.

Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing & Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Ginibre, Jean Louis. Ladies or Gentlemen: A Pictorial History of Male Cross-Dressing in the Movies. New York: Filipacchi, 2005.

Hall, Jonathan. “Falstaff, Sancho Panza and Azdak: Carnival and History.” In Comparative Criticism: Volume 7, Boundaries of Literature, edited by E.S. Shaffer, 127-46. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

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Jervis, John. Transgressing the Modern: Explorations in the Western Experience of Otherness. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1999.

Klinger, Barbara. “’Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’ Revisited: The Progressive Text.” Screen 25, no. 1 (Spring 1984): 30-44.

Kuhn, Annette. The Power of the Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality. London; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985.

Lally, Kevin. Wilder Times: The Life of Billy Wilder (Vol. 1). New York: H. Holt, 1996.

Lieberfeld, Daniel and Judith Sanders. “Comedy and Identity in Some Like It Hot.” Journal of Popular Film & Television 26, no. 3 (1998): 128-135.

McCarty, John. Bullets over Hollywood: The American Gangster Picture from the Silents to “The Sopranos” (Vol. 1). Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2004.

Neale, Steve. Genre and Hollywood. London: Routledge, 2000.

P.H., “Review of Some Like It Hot.Monthly Film Bulletin 26, no. 300/311 (1959): 69.

Phillips, John. Transgender on Screen. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

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Straayer, Chris. Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-orientations in Film and Video. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

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Connie and Carla. Directed by Michael Lembeck. United States: Universal Studios, 2004.

Fanfare d’Amour. Directed by Richard Pottier. France: Solar-Films, 1935.

Fanfaren der Liebe. Directed by Kurt Hoffman. West Germany: NDF, 1951.

Some Like It Hot. Directed by Billy Wilder. United States: MGM, 1959

Tootsie. Directed by Sydney Pollack. United States: Columbia TriStar, 1982.

Victor/Victoria. Directed by Blake Edwards. United Kingdom; United States: MGM, 1982.


[1] These reasons behind Some Like It Hot’s continuing popular appeal are well-illustrated in the message boards and user comments for the film on IMDB.[2] Bruzzi frames this argument through analyses of six primary films, positioning the ‘cross-dressing’ of Glen or Glenda, Mrs Doubtfire, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in opposition to the ‘androgyny’ of The Ballad of Little Jo, The Crying Game and Orlando.
[3] Fanfaren der Liebe is a remake of an earlier French film, Fanfare d’Amour (Richard Pottier, 1935), which further illustrates the unoriginality of the narrative concept.



Suzanne Woodward is a graduate of the University of Cape Town, the University of the Western Cape, and has recently completed her doctorate at the University of Auckland, where she teaches in the Department of Film, Television, and Media Studies. Her doctoral thesis was an exploration of trans representation in mainstream films across four different genres.


Volume 20, 2012


1. On Cinema, Stars, Boleros y Comedia: Contesting Cold War Repression through Mexican American Popular Culture in the Pages of La Opinion – Soledad Vidal

2. In the Eye of the Beholder: Bishounen as Fantasy and Reality – Christy Gibbs

3. Disruptive Influence: The Enduring Appeal of Some Like It Hot Suzanne Woodward

4. The Single Female Intruder – David Surman

5. Creating Godzilla’s media tourism: Comparing fan and local government practices – Craig Norris

6. “Fear is a Place”: The Asylum as Transgressive Haunted House in Brad Anderson’s Session 9  – Jessica Balanzategui


In the Eye of the Beholder: Bishounen as Fantasy and Reality – Christy Gibbs

Abstract: Since the international popularisation of anime and manga, the bishounen has been one of Japan’s best recognised archetypal figures. But where did this stereotypical look come from, and is it a purely fictional representation? This paper examines the bishounen not just as he appears on the page or screen, but also how he appears in the international fashion and music scenes, as well as the way in which he influences, and is influenced by, Western versions of himself.

Figure 1: The manga Princess Princess (Mikiyo Tsuda, 2006-7)

In the aesthetically distinct universe of Japanese animation, cultural constructs of gender and sexuality can be complex and challenging to navigate. However, perhaps no archetypal anime figure is as curious to the non-Japanese viewer as much as the bishounen. Best known for his physical attributes – a slender and willowy body shape, artfully arranged hair, narrow and angular features, and often pale, delicate-looking skin – the bishounen is, as the literal translation informs us, a beautiful young man, or ‘pretty boy’. His gender is often ambiguous, his sexual orientation even more so; even for those who watch anime or read manga on a regular basis, it can be difficult to discern whether his relationships with other characters lean towards romance or are merely affectionately platonic.

To those unfamiliar with a wider scope of Japanese popular culture, it is only within this fictive context that the bishounen would appear to exist. From an Anglo-American perspective particularly, it is difficult to take a cartoon character seriously, much less one that wears flamboyant clothing, makes over-the-top arm gestures, and who strikes seemingly casual poses with one hand placed on hip. Cross-dressing is also a common theme for the bishounen-centric manga or anime, for any number of reasons – most of them more on the ridiculous or humorous side, as in the likes of Princess Princess (in which an elite boarding school who elects students to take on the role of Princess in order to in order to break up the monotony of living in an all-male environment) and Gravitation (involving a male pop star who dons a sailor uniform in a ludicrous attempt to appeal to his aloof boyfriend), are nothing if not intentionally absurd. Anime such as Hourou Musuko (Wandering Son), which depict male cross-dressing in relation to any realistic statement of self-identity, are relatively rare.

Moreover, if those same characters were to appear in just about any mainstream American film or cartoon, most would associate their various mannerisms with gay, or at least extremely camp, stereotypes. Western mainstream media is used to viewing stereotypically effeminate male characters through a homosexual lens, and this is certainly sometimes the case in anime, even when a title is not a yaoi or boys love one.[i] Given that Japan is a country where one’s sexual practices are generally understood to be a personal and therefore private matter, it would be perfectly logical to assume that the bishounen is a figure with little, if any, basis in reality.

In fact, such an assumption, however rational, would be a false one. The genre of boys love aside chances of an anime bishounen actually being gay are fairly slim. Anglo-American sexual and cultural limitations would seem to be ‘more threatened by depiction of intense same-sex friendships than does Japanese culture’, commentator Patrick Drazen notes. ‘The reason is that American pop culture often limits its options to “sex” and “not sex.” Japanese culture makes room for a much wider range of relationships’ (Drazen, 2003, p. 103).

Perhaps a more accurate way of approaching the bishounen is to look not at what messages he is (or is not) attempting to convey in terms of sexual orientation within the narrative, but rather to discuss what type of role he fulfils as far as the audience is concerned. In doing so, it appears evident that the bishounen’s job is not to make any sort of explicit statement about his sexuality, but rather to exist as a specific form of eye candy for his largely female demographic; a physical representation of one of the Japanese woman’s ideals of the perfect guy. The bishounen is by his very nature androgynous, and therefore an iconic symbol that has the potential to encompass the strength of traditional masculinity, as well as the grace and beauty of the stereotypically feminine. Regardless of whether anime bishounen are based on real historic figures (Hakuouki Shinsengumi Kitan), re-imaginings of Western stories (Romeo x Juliet), or entirely original characters (The Vision of Escaflowne), they are all therefore given the same intense beautifying treatment.

In contrast, the conventional image of what constitutes an attractive male in much of the West has often been muscular and assertively powerful, evoking perceptions of physical dominance, authority and control, while the attribute of ‘prettiness’ is considered a feminine trait – the opposite of being masculine or ‘manly’. In Japan, however, being pretty does not necessarily mean sacrificing masculinity, and more recently, the West has also seen a growth in this new image of what constitutes male attractiveness. It could be argued that this new masculinity has been influenced since the mid-1990s by the increasing availability of popular and mainstream anime titles such as Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, Pokemon, One Piece, Naruto, and Bleach.

In order to explore how modern conceptions of the bishounen character arose, it is first necessary to pinpoint when and how he came into being within the mainstream culture of his birthplace. The term itself is first found in the Meiji period (1868-1912), where it was used to describe especially beautiful pre-adolescent boys, who were often involved in homosexual relationships (Pflugfelder,  1999, pp. 221–234). Although the word was not in usage prior to this, we might also be reminded of the popularity of Japanese theatre over the previous two centuries, where gender reversal was commonplace.

After women were banned from the kabuki theatre stage in the mid-1600s due primarily to problems arising from prostitution, physically effeminate male performers took on the role of women in their place (Bullough, 1993, p. 242).[ii] Such actors often maintained their dress outside the theatre, compelled to experience first-hand the everyday life, customs, and etiquette of the women they played, many from early childhood. At its height of popularity, some kabuki actors became so sought-after that they became leaders of women’s fashion. While the actors who played women’s roles emulated the manners and dress of high-born ladies, the audience, largely made up of peasants and townspeople, created a space in which performers could potentially become trendsetters in bearing and clothing (Scott, 1999, p. 39).

The temptation to view men who cross-dressed as a part of their art outside the theatre as homosexual is a natural one for many in the West today, and that many of these performers were indeed engaging in male/male relationships is probable. However, Anglo-American culture lacks a common understanding of when and why labels of sexuality are applied in Japanese culture. Whilst alternative sexual practices in Japan today, including those with long historical traditions such as homosexuality, cross-dressing, and transvestism are not widely publicly accepted, there has consistently been a large gap between how one is expected to behave in the outside world, and how that same person may act while taking on the role of entertainer. In a country where standing out from the crowd in any way is usually thought of as socially undesirable, anything that occurs within a framework of fiction – from kabuki and opera to anime and mainstream television – is not considered to be an accurate reflection of either an individual or society as a whole. Consequently, a transvestite who appears in a film is seen as a performer rather than a demonstration of an individual’s real expression of sexuality, and a drag queen depicted on a show lives only in the land of television – a world from which most Japanese feel detached (Buckley, 2002, p. 94).

For example, whilst the televised portrayal of a character named Hard Gay, as played by comedian Masaki Sumitani, depicted a man dressed in a black PVC fetish outfit who ran around the streets of Japan performing acts of charity for unsuspecting bystanders, the show gained national attention and popularity, and was deemed suitable to air on a Saturday evening variety show. Of course, Hard Gay is an overt homosexual parody (in reality neither gay nor a fetishist), and not a bishounen by any stretch of the imagination; his television persona serves to illustrate the ambiguity between screen and reality. In contrast, Japanese stage and film actor Saotome Taichi is a modern example of a figure that embodies the bishounen aesthetic, yet is not spurned or ridiculed for how he dresses, speaks, or behaves during his performances. Well known for playing both beautiful young men and women, Saotome was trained from a young age in the field of female impersonation. An official fan club was established in 2006, and tickets to his kimono dance performance at the Taishokan theatre the following year sold out within a day.

Figure 2: Japanese stage and film actor Saotome Taichi

Nonetheless, the real-life depiction of the bishounen dates back much further than popular Japanese theatre, and can be traced to the tenth century where the Imperial Court of Heian-kyo (now the city of Kyoto) held sway. The Heian Court was the centre of aesthetic sensibilities of all varieties: Japanese music, poetry, calligraphy, and clothing fashions all found their deepest roots here, where aristocrats were obsessed with the pursuit of beauty. It was not simply that cultivating beauty meant a person was sophisticated or fashionable – it also implied a sense of morality. George Sansom, a pre-modern Japan historian, writes: ‘The most striking feature of the aristocratic society of the Heian capital was its aesthetic quality … even in its emptiest follies, it was moved by considerations of refinement and governed by a rule of taste’ (Sansom, 1958, p. 178).

Standards of aristocratic male beauty here were in many ways similar to those for female beauty. Both sexes whitened their skin with rice powder, blackened their teeth using a liquid made up of acetic acid and dissolved iron, and prized a rounded, plump figure in order to physically display the leisure and riches that the peasantry – those with leaner figures from less food intake and darker skin from labouring outdoors – could not afford to obtain. It was fashionable for men to have a thin moustache or tuft of beard at the chin, but large quantities of facial hair were considered especially unattractive (Topics in Japanese Cultural History).

Naturally, Heian beauty is interpreted in a more contemporary, bishounen-esque framework as far as anime and manga are concerned: The Tale of Genji, originally written by Murasaki Shikibu during the Heian period, has had several adaptations, the most recent of which was an 11-episode anime series in 2009. While most of the characters have the creamy white skin of the Heian-period principles of beauty, there is physically little else to tie the anime and Heian ideals of attractiveness together. Genji, with his slender silhouette and narrow features, has nothing that sets him visually apart from any other bishounen that might be seen in any other mainstream anime production, historically-themed or otherwise.

While the bishounen ideal may have been cemented in the Heian era, a quick survey of Japanese popular culture today, even disregarding the anime and manga industries, reveals that far from being a storytale figure, the bishounen also exists as a true world representation. Host club workers, although a far cry from what has been depicted in the extremely popular Ouran High School Host Club anime series, are perhaps the most obvious example to draw from, with many of these young men looking almost like a parody of anime bishounen caricatures. Similar to their hostess club counterparts, where male customers pay for the attentive company of beautiful young ladies, host clubs employ men who are paid to converse, pour drinks, light cigarettes, entertain by means of fun stage performances, and generally flirt with their female clientele. Upon a first visit to a host club, the customer is presented with a menu of each host on offer for her to decide which host she like to meet first. Once she has chosen the host she most prefers, she designates him her named host, with the employee then receiving a percentage of all future sales generated by that particular customer. Most clubs operate on a permanent nomination system, and a host cannot be changed once they have been nominated excepting under special circumstances. Regular payment is determined by a host’s commission on drink sales, and for this reason, the environment can be highly competitive, with tens of thousands of dollars sometimes offered to the host who can achieve the highest sales (pripix).

The typical host look, made up of an appropriately dishevelled dark suit and collared shirt, bleached hair, and expensive silver jewellery, is paired with a stage name often taken from a favourite film, manga, or historical figure that may describe their persona. The overall effect is usually one of an anime bishounen made flesh and blood. The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief (Jake Clennell, 2006), a documentary-film interviewing several hosts and their customers in a popular club in Osaka, paints a very pragmatic picture of the host club industry – one which survives by seducing customers without having to depend on the more overt sexual appeal of strip clubs or brothels. ‘For girls, we are products’, states one such worker. ‘If she wants a humble, cool guy, I can be like that. If she wants a funny guy, I can be like that too.’ ‘Let’s say I do fuck her. That girl will probably never come back’, another points out. ‘At that point, there won’t be anything else I can give her … Knowing how to give them satisfaction without sex – that’s the point.’ While hosts can and sometimes do have sex with their clients, this is clearly not the purpose of this institution’s existence.

Tajima Yoko, a professor of women’s studies at Hosei University in Tokyo, explains the host club phenomenon by the conventional Japanese male and his lack of true listening to the everyday concerns of his partner. ‘Men, married or not, in our culture do not listen to their female partners’ problems carefully … They only tell women what they want them to hear. Men don’t consider women equal partners’ (New York Times). Although there is no official count of the number of individual clubs, the host club industry employed an estimated twenty thousand men in total as of 2005 (Japan – Facts and Details). Some of the larger and more commercial clubs, such as New Ai (New Love) in Shinjuku, Tokyo, employ approximately eighty workers whose sole job it is to fulfil the emotional needs of the women who frequent the club, in part by existing as beautiful objects of fantasy (New York Times).

Such a concept is alien to most of the rest of the world, suggesting that outside of Japan, the majority of countries do not have the numbers of the right type of customer – that is, one willing to spend several hundred or thousand dollars per visit purely to be kept company by a score of pretty men – to support such an industry. While the idea of paying for sex is universally understood, the thought of paying an equal amount or more for the pleasure of someone’s company is simply baffling to many people. In turn, although some host workers are foreigners, host clubs are generally not known about, or else poorly understood, by overseas visitors, and very few customers are non-Japanese. As with the Japanese sex industry, there is a very distinct preference for both the customer and the host to be Japanese, and it is not uncommon for many bars and clubs to have signs outside saying “No foreigners admitted.”

Tellingly, a great deal of the reactions by foreigners to the business of host clubs has tended to be negative. ‘Even if they had equivalent in the UK I don’t think I’d go’, reads one response to an online article. ‘British guys (sorry to say this) don’t really seem to maintain their looks or interest in a womans [sic] needs for long enough.’ ‘I don’t find them attractive in any way, and I don’t want to pay for the “companionship”’, states another (UK Fashion, Lifestyle & Beauty Blog). Keywords commonly associated with host fashion outside of Japan include “tacky”, “fake”, “creepy”, and “sleazy”.

However, in other entertainment industries, the cultural crossover in terms of what women find attractive in a male is more evident. The music business is one such industry, and in Japan, the most extreme form of the bishounen can be found here. Visual kei – literally visual style – is a uniquely Japanese aesthetic music movement inspired by Western glam metal bands such as Kiss and Twisted Sister (High Music XRD). What these bands inspired in visual kei was, as the name of the movement implies, the importance of appearance as an essential part of the musical style, sometimes even above the music itself in terms of importance.

Bands including The Gazette, Versailles, and Alice Nine are today known less for their music and more for their eye-catching make-up and wardrobe in some circles. The visual kei look is ethereally dark, glamorously androgynous, and elaborately punk, often all at once. Many artists are particularly effeminate in appearance, and it is not uncommon for some to pose explicitly as females, wearing dresses reminiscent of Regency, Rococo, and Victorian fashion. Their ‘maleness’ as we might understand it comes across strongly in their vocals, which are usually anything but gender ambiguous.

Figure 3: Visual kei band Versailles

First emerging in the late 1980s, the visual kei movement was pioneered by acts such as X Japan, Buck-Tick, and D’erlanger. By the mid-1990s, a boost in popularity throughout Japan meant that the most notable of these bands were achieving high commercial success, with the likes of X Japan, Luna Sea, Glay, and Malice Mizer receiving large amounts of media attention. This last group became especially famous for their live performances, which featured lavish historical costumes and stage sets. Mana, co-founder of Malice Mizer, would go on to create his own clothing label, Moi-même-Moitié, in 1999, coining the terms “Elegant Gothic Lolita” and “Elegant Gothic Aristocrat” (Steele and Park, 2008, p. 54). He is regularly featured modelling his own designs in the quarterly Gothic & Lolita Bible, the top publication of the Lolita fashion scene, yet retains his mysterious persona by rarely speaking in public. In most interviews past and present, Mana is known for whispering his answers into the ear of a band member or confidante, using Yes/No cards, or expressing himself in mime.

Gackt, who abruptly left Malice Mizer at the height of the band’s success in 1999, began pursuing a career as an actor and solo artist, and is currently one of Japan’s best known pop idols. Since his time apart from Malice Mizer, Gackt has been making regular alterations to his style: his hair has morphed from straight, long, and jet-black to blonde and spiky in the blink of an eye, and he has experimented with nearly every shade of red and brown in between. His naturally brown eyes frequently change colour thanks to habitual use of green or blue contact lenses. Yet whether he plays a gang leader (Moon Child), samurai warrior (Bunraku), or feudal warlord (Fūrin Kazan), the main trademarks of Gackt’s appearance has remained the same – pale, slender, and virtually ageless.

It is therefore no surprise that Gackt has styled himself on, and even provided a model for many bishounen of the manga, anime, and video game industries. Characters from The Rose of Versailles, Rurouni Kenshin, and Final Fantasy VII, among other titles, have all been incorporated into his look at one stage or another, to Gackt’s rising popularity. Sentiments like those referenced by anthropologist Laura Miller in Beauty Up towards stars such as Gackt (‘He has a body so beautiful it’s like an art object … I’m filled with fantasies of the excitement that would happen if we were in bed’) are far from unusual among fans (Miller, 2006, p. 156). Strictly speaking, the cut-off age for bishounen-hood is eighteen, at which point one becomes a biseinen instead – a beautiful man, usually described as more handsome than pretty. Now in his forties, Gackt, still flaunting the cool delicacy of his features, is living proof that age is not necessarily a barrier to adhering to the bishounen style.

Neither are Gackt’s charms restricted to a female fanbase. In 2010, Gackt announced that his live performance at Club Citta in Kawasaki, Kanagawa, would be for men only, reportedly in an attempt to reverse the recent trend among Japanese males of shunning traditional male stereotypes to get in touch with their feminine side, and instead celebrate ‘the way of the man’ (Japan Today: Japan News and Discussion). Over one thousand men attended the sold-out show, while sixty women listened from the lobby and countless others from outside, cheering the men on as they entered (Ningin).

Other Japanese musical stars have found their fame through group collaboration. While the boy band fad in the West has died down somewhat since the 1990s, pop boy bands in Japan are among the most successful of all genres of Japanese music. J-pop found its way into major mainstream success during the same decade, gaining a commercial peak with individual female artists such as Hamasaki Ayumi and Utada Hikaru as well as with idol units (popular singing and dancing groups), many of them all-male. In particular, the talent agency Johnny & Associates, which exists exclusively to train and promote male idol groups, produced several extremely high-profile groups during this period such as SMAP, Tokio, and Arashi. American boy bands such as The Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync likewise debuted in the 1990s, only to peak and then either disband or sharply decline in popularity in the first years of the new millennium. In comparison, Japanese boy bands continued to grow in number and reputation, with huge acts like EXILE, NEWS, KAT-TUN, and Hey! Say! JUMP joining the idol unit craze.

Like the Western boy bands of the 1990s, aesthetic appeal continues to be a significant factor in the popularity and marketing of these all-boy Japanese groups, and it is easy to see the similarities between The Backstreets Boys and Hey! Say! JUMP, Westlife and KAT-TUN, or ‘N Sync and Arashi not only in terms of sound, but also in general style. Posters, album covers, and promotional photos depict these bands casually standing or lounging about dressed all in white, for example, as they gaze coolly at the camera. Other images show the band members in jeans and black leather jackets, long coats with scarves draped nonchalantly about their necks, or with the slightly ruffled suit-and-tie look.

Figure 4: Boy bands N Sync and Arashi

However, looking past some of these blinding similarities, there are also some significant differences. For instance, it is difficult to find members of any of these household-name Japanese boy bands with facial hair, while there usually seems to be at least one, and sometimes two or three Western boy band members sporting a well-groomed beard or goatee. The same contrast can be seen with regards to boy band members with piercings or tattoos; the resident ‘bad boy’ of the group is usually evident in a Western boy band, while that figure is conspicuous only by his absence in the Japanese version. Hair tends to be a little longer in Japanese male idol groups, with a particular emphasis on eye-covering fringes and painstakingly placed wisps, whereas only one or two boy band members out of any given group in America might be known for their longer locks.

Overall, Japan’s male groups are typically gentle in appearance, perhaps a little more friendly and accessible. Whilst not precisely androgynous, they are a less extreme version of the bishounen of the visual kei scene. Where The Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync took pains to keep from appearing too pretty by balancing out the more delicate-looking members of the group with a couple of tougher, more traditionally masculine individuals (and presumably thereby avoiding any gay slurs), the members of KAT-TUN and Hey! Say! JUMP make their living off being beautiful.

Furthermore, groups like this earn their idol status not only by singing, but also by acting in television dramas, appearing on variety shows, hosting charity events, and endorsing products such as Coca-Cola, KDDI Corporation mobile phones, Wii video games, and the Japan Tourism Agency. They are a constant, inescapable presence in nearly all aspects of Japanese daily life, and they take pains to form an image based on their individual talents or personality traits as being a part of a cohesive unit. Predictably, their female fans are both numerous and extremely passionate. In 2010, a Tokyo-based freelance journalist wrote:

Then there is Arashi who celebrate each other’s birthdays and vacation together. It seems incredible that Arashi is popular worldwide for simply being good buddies but this kind of interaction is so rarely seen in celebrities. In Japan, the interaction is rehearsed and simulated. Overseas, variety shows specialize in people openly feuding. With these types of entertainment, it is no wonder that the good-natured humor of Arashi, along with their sappy sweet pop songs, is healing the world’ (The Asahi Shimbun Digital).

The young men of Arashi may be a little too conventional to indulge in cosplay or model their looks after specific anime characters, but their style cannot help but be at least indirectly influenced by the bishounen aesthetic. Very few anime bishounen have any trace of facial hair, and as has been previously discussed, these types of characters are well-known for their slender frames, unblemished skin, glossy hair that falls just so over the eyes, and a coolly tantalizing aura. The similarities are not hard to overlook.

It is apparent that there has been some crossover of the appeal of the bishounen in today’s Western entertainment industries with newer boy bands such as British group One Direction, although the most notable increase with regards to the popularity of pretty boys has been seen in the film industry thanks to the widespread popularity of franchises like Twilight. Although most non-Japanese teenage girls may not know the meaning of the word bishounen or have any understanding of what anime or manga is, the traditional sex appeal of the rough, tough, rugby-player style body currently competes against the slim, milky-white skinned young male as so obviously embodied in the character of Edward Cullen.

The film versions of the Twilight novels chose to amplify the tension already seen in book format, where two young men compete for one girl’s romantic interests and the heroine constantly bounces between the two, who are physically complete opposites. Edward is exceptionally slim, pale to the point of being sickly-looking, and has an aura of cold intensity about him even after becoming romantically involved with Bella. The very name Edward, which roughly translates to ‘wealthy guard’, conjures images of English nobility and old world romanticism. Conversely, Jacob Black is of Native American descent, and has dark hair and eyes and russet skin. A tribal tattoo on his right arm completes the slightly roguish look. Although he is originally described as tall and lanky in the first book, the films portray him as relatively muscular; a fact that is only accentuated by his usual style of clothing – or lack thereof. Where Edward is cool, Jacob is passionate and adventurous, and where Edward turns into a sparkly, ostensibly prettier version of himself, Jacob quite literally transforms into a wild animal.

As was no doubt the intention, the competition between Edward and Jacob transcended the screen and became embedded in popular culture. Did main protagonist Bella – and by extension, the audience – lust after the beautiful, sharp-edged Edward, or did she prefer the brawny, more earthy charms of Jacob? Did fans desire pretty, or lust over handsome? Posters, shirts, and an array of other types of merchandise proudly display an allegiance of either Team Jacob or Team Edward, and have been snapped up by teens and tweens in their thousands.

Ultimately, however, it was Team Pretty who won the race, winning not only the girl but also, in overwhelming numbers, the most fans. In a poll carried out in 2008 by Novel Novice Twilight, a website dedicated to exploring the relationship between the Twilight series and its fans, Team Edward won by nearly double the score, earning over five thousand votes (Twilight Novel Novice). In 2009, Robert Pattinson was chased into traffic on a New York City street by a mob of frenzied fans, and the following year, People magazine listed Pattinson in their “World’s Most Beautiful” issue because of his ‘pale, otherworldly complexion’ (New York Daily News, People).

Unsurprisingly, the amount of anime bishounen who also fit the unearthly beautiful vampire mould are numerous: Zero, Kaname, and just about every other male vampire from Vampire Knight, Solomon Goldsmith and Hagi from Blood+, Shido and Cain from Nightwalker: Midnight Detective, and Trinity’s Blood’s Abel and Cain Nightroad, to name just a few. This is not to suggest that Stephanie Meyer was directly influenced by anime or the figure of the Japanese bishounen, but rather that due to the current influence of anime in international popular culture, non-Japanese audiences are becoming more receptive to the pretty boy as one ideal of male beauty.

Figure 5: Trunks from popular male-orientated anime Dragonball Z

However, although the sheer popularity of characters such as Edward Cullen would appear to indicate that the West is becoming more open to pretty young men being an acceptable form of heterosexual attractiveness, it also illustrates that we are far from being able to think of prettiness as a form of real masculinity. The hate that has been directed towards Patterson/Edward Cullen suggests that traditional notions of masculinity have not been eclipsed, and there is a substantial reaction against bishounen-type characters in the West despite the undoubted popularity of the figure amongst teenage girls. While we usually insist on polarising prettiness and masculinity, in Japan this does not seem to be an issue. Japanese studies Professor Kenneth G. Henshall points out that ‘deliberately enhanced “effeminate”, flower-like, graceful beauty has rarely been considered the antithesis of manliness in Japan, either by women or men themselves’ (Henshall, 1999, p. 4). Mainstream notions in Anglo-American society that correlate being pretty and being homosexual are gradually changing, yet slurs such as “pretty boy”, “queen”, and “fairy” are still commonly applied to men who are perceived as being too feminine in appearance, or who are especially fastidious about their physical presentation – regardless of whether this has any kind of connection to sexual orientation. In contrast, Miller has written, ‘I do not see current male beauty practices [in Japan] as a type of “feminization” of men … but rather as a shift to beautification as a component of masculinity’ (Miller, 2006, p. 126).

Given that manga, while rising in awareness and popularity in America and elsewhere, is nowhere near approaching the types of sales figures in Japan, this should not come as a surprise. Manga makes up nearly forty percent of total book sales in Japan, and to a large extent is responsible for normalising the bishounen aesthetic (Craig, 2000, p. 110). The bishounen has been a central figure for much of manga and anime’s modern history and is not limited to genre or demographic, even appearing in titles aimed at a primarily male audience such as Trunks from Dragonball Z, Sesshomaru from InuYasha, and Sasuke and Itachi from Naruto, as well as the conventional female-orientated fare. However, the influence of the young female consumer in Japan cannot be underestimated, and much of the entertainment industry caters to her tastes and desires. Whilst the stories depicted in anime and manga may not be a direct reflection of Japanese society, the prevalence of the bishounen has undeniably gone a long way in giving society the okay to emulate the look without being frowned upon or ridiculed for it.

Perceptions are gradually shifting in the West as well, and in many cases it appears that pretty is becoming the new brand of sexy for men. However, without the same sort of normalisation that Japan enjoys, it is doubtful whether the gap between male beauty and stereotypes of weakness and femininity will be bridged to the same extent in the near future. The bishounen outside of Asia is beginning to gain some currency, but ‘safe’ Western notions of duality – masculine and feminine, heterosexual and homosexual – may be too ingrained to ever be disregarded completely.


i Both yaoi and boys love are popular terms used to describe fictional media (usually referring specifically to anime and manga), that focuses on homoerotic male relationships. The genre is largely created by and for a heterosexual female audience, and is distinguishable from what is commonly known as gei comi, bara, or mens love, which caters to a gay male audience and tends to be created primarily by homosexual male artists.

ii Eventually, still finding similar problems, all male actors became required by the authorities to shave their hair in the style of mature men so that they would be less attractive to their audience.



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Craig, Timothy J. (2000). Japan Pop!: Inside the World of Japanese Popular Culture,  M. E. Sharpe, New York.

Henshall, Kenneth G. (1999). Dimensions of Japanese Society: Gender, Margins and Mainstream, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Miller, Laura, (2006). Beauty Up: Exploring Contemporary Japanese Body Aesthetics, University of California Press, California.

Pflugfelder, Gregory M. (1999). Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600-1950, University of California Press, California.

Sansom, George Bailey (1958). A History of Japan to 1334, Stanford University Press, California).

Scott, Adolphe Clarence (1999). The Kabuki Theatre of Japan, Courier Dover Publications, New York.

Steele, Valerie and Park, Jennifer (2008). Gothic: Dark Glamour, Yale University Press, Connecticut.

The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief. 2006. Directed by Jake Clennell. United Kingdom. Jake Clennell Productions.

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Christy Gibbs is a graduate from the University of Waikato in New Zealand, and has recently completed her doctoral thesis whose topic explores representations of sexuality in contemporary Japanese animation. She is currently working in rural Japan as an Assistant Language Teacher and is also a regular columnist for Forces of Geek, a blog focusing on a variety of pop and geek culture worldwide.


On Cinema, Stars, Boleros y Comedia: Contesting Cold War Repression through Mexican American Popular Culture in the pages of La Opinion – Soledad Vidal

Abstract: This article explores the role that La Opinion, a Mexican American press that rose to meet the growing needs of Mexicans of first and second generation in the U.S. Southwest, played in addressing migrants through a pedagogy of ethnic consciousness. It is argued that through Mexican forms of entertainment that addressed audiences in a familiar Spanish language, the paper enabled the community to simultaneously be immigrants, Mexican and American subjects. Helping promote Mexican entertainment niches, La Opinion encouraged audiences to visit the cine Mejicano to preserve culture, support the Mexican film industry during labor strikes, and enjoy relief from Cold War-related layoffs, union demonstrations and increased discrimination.

Figure 1: José Pedro Infante Cruz, better known as Pedro Infante, the famous actor and singer of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema

“Mexico, dearly beloved, if I die far away from you
let them say that I’m just sleeping and
may they bring me back home to you.”
                  ~ Jorge Negrete

Suburbanization, coupled with the decline of public transportation, affected 1950s entertainment patterns across the United States as suburban families traded their love affair with the big screen for the privacy of television viewership in single family homes. As suburbia spread, those who did not have access to transportation found it increasingly difficult to reach downtown centers and go to the movies.  Despite the postwar growth of the U.S. suburbs, Mexican immigrants continued to move into and revitalize urban ethnic neighborhoods transforming Los Angeles entertainment sites into their own. La Opinion, a Mexican American press that rose to meet the growing needs of Mexicans of first and second generation in the U.S. Southwest addressed migrants through a pedagogy of ethnic consciousness. The paper emerged as a form of immigrant support system and a coping institution that addressed themes centered on the economic, social and racial assimilation problems that resulted from World War II. Since 1900s, Mexican immigrants, more than any other group, had served as the backbone of the American Southwestern economy responding to America’s vacancies in labor.[1] As Mexican Americans joined the ranks of the National Guard, the Army reserve, enlisted in the United States Military, and signed agricultural agreements to tend U.S. fields, they relocated north providing a service to the United States and laying the roots of community in the process.

La Opinion celebrated Mexican political and civic contributions to claim a stake in Americanism during the Cold War period. However, the paper also revealed its vision to help establish a Mexican community that reflected in many ways the Mexican homeland that migrants left behind.  Through Mexican forms of entertainment that addressed audiences in a familiar Spanish language, the paper enabled the community to simultaneously be immigrants, Mexican and American subjects. Mexican American entertainment and more specifically, the “Cine” (movie) section of the paper emerged as the most resistant to assimilative rhetoric and as the paper’s most visible stronghold of Mexican cultural heritage. La Opinion reserved its popular cultural pages to appeal to the Mexican community’s desire to assimilate into American society within a space of Mexican cultural affirmation. Movie-goers who lived and labored in Los Angeles turned to Mexican entertainment to fill a void in Mexican representation in U.S. cinema and to cope with the nostalgia of missing home.

La Opinion’s entertainment section revealed a deep affection for Mexican performers showcasing Mexican actors, mariachi singers and comedians in glamorous downtown movie houses in Los Angeles. Through “painful self-recognitions” as captured in satires, critiques, political commentary and melodramas, Mexican entertainers connected Mexican American audiences to their homeland.[2] During this period, Hollywood catered to middle-class and American-born patrons. Through location, thematic content and cost of attendance the United States film industry demonstrated “a general indifference toward the treatment of Hispanic themes.”[3]  Yet La Opinion reveals that Los Angeles’ Mexican-descent readers responded to the absence of representation in mainstream Hollywood productions through the creation and support of their own cultural niche. Lining the Los Angeles historic center, movie palaces like the Million Dollar and the Mayan emerged as centers of Latin American showcase.[4] Located at Broadway and 3rd Street in Los Angeles, the Million Dollar’s lobby was decorated with large posters from beloved 1950s stars such as Pedro Infante, El Trio Los Panchos, Cantinflas and Tin Tan.  Mexicans living in Los Angeles flocked to local Los Angeles movie houses to watch stage shows featuring Mexico’s biggest stars. The experience of dressing up in style, waiting in line for over an hour, and cheering on their favorite actors revealed the role of Mexican entertainment to a truly integrated community. Bruce Corwin, the president of Metropolitan Theaters company that leased the Million Dollar on and off in the 1940s remembered the excitement of parents, grandparents and children as they awaited the shows. “To them,” stated Corwin, “the Million Dollar was a magical name” eliciting memories of larger-than-life stars.[5]

The Cine (cinema) section of La Opinion promoted and affirmed cultural productions from Mexico by encouraging local Mexican communities to seek Mexican entertainment at local glamorous houses. Frank Fouce, who leased the Million Dollar Theater in 1949, is credited from saving it from downtown’s decline by refocusing entertainment to suit the Hispanic community’s tastes.[6] By the 1950s, the postwar push to the suburbs turned the Million Dollar theater from a Hollywood movie house where Charlie Chaplin had once performed into a showcase of Mexican talent.

Helping promote Mexican entertainment niches, La Opinion published big advertisements on upcoming stars and musical and comedic tours. The paper also delved into popular gossip about las estrellas (movie stars) hooking readers by leaking stories about undercover romances and ego-fueled confrontations between divas and idols. Whether viewers stepped out to watch Un Divorcio (Emilio Gomez Muriel, 1953), Salt of the Earth (Herbert J. Biberman, 1954), or Los Hijos de Maria Morales (Fernando de Fuentes, 1952) among many other Mexican productions, La Opinion encouraged audiences to visit the cine Mejicano to preserve culture, support the Mexican film industry during labor strikes, and enjoy relief from Cold War-related layoffs, union demonstrations and increased discrimination. Mexican comedies in particular played more than an entertainment role. They were promoted by La Opinion as healing mechanisms and uplifting popular culture venues that helped the Mexican American community cope with layoffs in transportation and the food industries.[7] In June 11, 1950, for example, the Cine section praised the movie “Enredate y Veras” (Get Entangled and See, Carlos Orellana, 1948), claiming that while the community was affected by the tram and bread maker strikes, “Mexican humor [was] the best antidote to temporary unemployment.” In the process of prescribing film as a treatment for economic uncertainty, La Opinion advanced two important goals: promoting the financial prosperity of local business by helping raise film attendance to local Mexican theaters, and serving as a defender of the Mexican migrants facing discrimination during the Cold-War period.

Figure 2: A poster advertising Mexican Cinema features at Los Angeles’ Million Dollar Theater

During and shortly after World War II, Mexican cinema inside Mexico received a boost, as the war lessened foreign competition in filmmaking, and the U.S. focused its films on war-related themes that, according to film critics writing for La Opinion in 1954, “were disliked and deemed distasteful by Mexican audiences.”[8] During its Golden Era, Mexican cinema had achieved a level of economic, artistic, and popular success unprecedented in any other Latin American country.[9] Spanning roughly from 1935 to 1955, Mexico’s Golden Era witnessed a vast expansion of the Mexican film industry across Latin America in a manner comparable to the influence of Hollywood on the English-speaking world. By 1948, Mexico had out-produced filmmakers throughout Latin America with approximately 2.5 million tickets sold with foreign sales amounting to 75 percent of admissions.[10] Mexican film during this period focused on narratives of belonging that emphasized moral teachings, social problems, and the melodrama, a genre of film that delved deep into personal relationships and, more pointedly, on problems rooted in the family.

Mexico’s focus on the family resulted from influences stemming from the aftermath of World War II, as Hollywood filmmakers working in a variety of genres from westerns to thrillers turned to the family. The genre to most effectively address the institution of the family was the melodrama. The box-office success of Mexican films continued after the end of World War II when Mexican cinema became focused on commercial films. Mexican melodrama idealized Mexican life and emphasized the importance of family and national unity at a time of economic and social crisis.[11] As Jackie Byars explains, Hollywood melodramas also assumed various shapes, such as patriarchal melodrama; maternal melodrama, typically set in a community of women and children where the patriarch is absent; and lover-centered melodrama which most directly “laid bare the family’s internal contradictions.”[12] Big stars such as Marga Lopez, whom La Opinion described as “la artista argentina del cine mexicano” (the argentine artist of Mexico’s cinema), played numerous leading roles in melodramas helping to usher in the golden age of Mexican female depictions. Revered by La Opinion as one of Mexico’s most talented stars, Marga Lopez left an imprint in melodrama through her masterful performances as a loving, suffering wife. Born in Argentina, she arrived in Mexico when she was a young girl and made her film debut with German Valdes “Tin Tan” in El Hijo Desobediente (The Disobedient Child) directed by Humberto Gomez Landero in 1945. Her performances led to four Ariels (Mexican awards in film). After establishing herself as a great dame of Mexican cinema, Lopez became a Mexican citizen in 1955, eventually transitioning her career from film into TV telenovelas (soap operas).[13] In the period that preceded Lopez, female roles had pushed beyond the traditional fiery, frivolous, and sensual senoritas, for stronger parts that cast Mexican women in bolder roles.[14] However, by the 1950s the quality of female roles entered into a period of decline, as the narrative of the family returned women to the home.[15]

Family melodramas, also known as maternal melodramas, women’s films, or “weepies” centered on the problems of love, sexuality, and parenting.[16] Typically promoting a female centered plot, “weepies” addressed a female audience and focused on women, their lives, and their relationships with other women, a trend that feminist film theorist Nancy Chodorow argues was significant considering that women had been marginalized in other film genres.[17] Un Divorcio, (A Divorce, directed by Emilio Gomez Muriel, 1953) a Mexican film starring Marga Lopez and Carlos Moctezuma, was revered in La Opinion as an example of a superb melodrama that delved into maternal problems, women’s conflicts, and the dangerous threat of divorce.

Un Divorcio’s lead actor, Carlos Lopez de Moctezuma, who played the stoic patriarch in the film, was regularly featured in the Cine section of the press. “Our villain,” as La Opinion warmly referred to him, had built a prosperous film career by being cast as a “malo” (antihero); a personality trait that contrasted “his radiant personality.”[18] In an interview with La Opinion, Moctezuma revealed that his career in acting had started with his love for theater. Yet due to the flexibility of the Mexican entertainment industry, where theater and film actors frequently crossed over, Moctezuma eventually chose film, appearing in more than 96 motion pictures throughout his career.

I went to the movies to earn money and then lost it taking theater roles. In the end, I gave up my love for theater, choosing film. I cannot complain. I have built a long career in film, even though I have always been cast in villain roles. The industry classified me in that role and I have adapted to it and very happily obliged.[19]

Villain or hero, La Opinion adored Moctezuma and frequently published candid interviews with Mexico’s favorite stars. However, the early 1950’s film critic’s corner of La Opinion addressed problems inherent in the protection of a star-studded system that featured the same actors who, while dear to the Mexican viewership, appeared to monopolize roles leaving no room for new talent.[20]   On October 11, 1952, La Opinion film critics pleaded with the Mexican film industry to make room for fresh talent:

We need young actresses and actors. There is a crisis in young acting talent. The lack of new young actors is affecting theaters and movies that now operate at a minimal capacity. In our movies one rarely sees young actors. Instead, we are exposed to the same actors in many repeated roles. These beloved stars, who started their film careers in their youth are now aging yet they are still playing the same protagonist roles. This is not going to be attractive for much longer, as leading stars become grandparents, yet keep playing seductive roles. Even though the beautiful stars are photogenic, their souls are aged and this affects film.[21]

The article added that young talent was rarely cast in protagonist roles. Relegated mostly to secondary parts, young actors, stated La Opinion, “fear taking leading roles.” For their part, movie producers, too, worried that promoting new talent would affect ticket sales as the public, unfamiliar with new talent, would be hesitant to watch films with unknown actors. La Opinion disagreed with the old model that protected a few acting elite and instead advocated change.  “So then,” stated the paper, “we continue with our antiquated movie cast of 10 or even 15 years ago as if time has stood still.” Movie viewers, stated the columnist, “are tired of the same old faces. They can even anticipate the actor’s facial gestures, the dropping of the eyes, their punch lines, their melodramatic acting style and at times even predict the next line. The only thing that changes is wardrobe.” Pressing for a change, the paper argued that “we need new young talent now. We have a serious problem facing the future of our film. If things keep going as they are, we will find ourselves without talent 30 years from now.”[22]

La Opinion boldly critiqued aspects of Mexican film that could potentially affect Mexico’s reputation as a respectable cinematographic industry. When it came to favorite genres, the paper praised melodramas as “Mexico’s movie genre that captured Mexico’s history and its people.”[23] However, during the 1950s La Opinion also advertised a new film genre: the social protest picture, which emerged as a reaction to the Cold War practice of blacklisting actors and technicians who worked on anti-capitalistic films. While La Opinion promoted itself as a progressive, pro-liberal press, the Cine section revealed some internal ideological contradictions, as the paper supported both capitalistic practices as well as films that critiqued U.S. discrimination against Mexican Americans. One of the most advertised social problem films was Herbert Biberman’s Salt of the Earth. The film focused on the 1951 strike by a branch of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers operating in Baynard, New Mexico. At the core of its message, the film highlighted the sacrifices of the miners who challenged the Empire Zinc Corporation over wages and working conditions. Salt of the Earth triggered the suppression of both the film and the Mexican labor union at the height of Cold War America.[24] In order to produce the film, Biberman recruited the services of blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson and also enlisted actual members of the local union who had participated in the strike. Miners and their families agreed to participate in the film as long as Biberman allowed them a measure of control over the script to ensure its accuracy in the representation of the mining community.[25] The members of Local 890 insisted on a portrayal that would reveal how they came together as a community to counter oppression from Anglo interests. As a condition of performing, the miners refused to play into any gendered stereotypes that referenced machismo, subordination of women, illiteracy, ignorance, or weakness. Biberman accepted the miners’ requests and thus began production of the story. Salt of the Earth would be told through the eyes and experiences of Esperanza Quintero, played by Mexican actress, Rosaura Revueltas. The film emphasized the exploitation of Mexican employees through low wages, poor safety conditions and inadequate housing. Led by Esperanza Quintero, miner women, too, organized, fought and picketed for improved conditions.

Figure 3: Rosaura Revueltas in Salt of the Earth.

Reporting on the film, La Opinion published an interview with Revueltas on October 12, 1952. In this interview, Revueltas told journalist Pedro Martinez that she was headed to Hollywood to “take part in a film that due to its social content will be tremendously transcendental.” Martinez reported that the U.S. was interested in keeping a close eye on Revuelta’s film since “this movie will raise the question of discrimination of humble Mexican miners who work in the mines of New Mexico.” Martinez warned that “this movie will not show in the U.S. due to its drastic censorship.” Praising Revueltas and Salt of the Earth, La Opinion lauded the film’s “realistic style similar to Italian films,” and added that Salt of the Earth was filmed on site and without fake sets.  At the conclusion of the interview, La Opinion thanked Revuelta for bravely taking the role and for helping to bring justice to hard-working Mexican Americans.

               Salt of the Earth’s story explored many firsts, addressing the struggles of Mexican American miners, while also highlighting gender inequality within the same community. Anglo abuse and Mexican gender inequality emerged as themes that revealed dual systems of abuse.  While initially welcoming women’s participation in all aspects of the strike, the film showed that Mexican male miners initially resisted women’s public roles. However, when workers won the strike in the end, the men realized that they, too, had contributed to their community’s abuse. The film, which premiered in 1954, was immediately censored in the U.S. The film was produced independently from the Hollywood studio system during the hysteria of the Cold War and was virtually banned from ever being shown in the U.S. In 1954, however, the film played briefly in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.  It was released in Canada and in Europe to widespread acclaim, and was shown again in the U.S. in 1965. Salt of the Earth’s repression revealed the pervasive impact of Cold War ideology in Hollywood productions. The film’s depiction of Mexican American mine workers’ struggles in the copper mines of New Mexico exposed the U.S. government’s harassment of labor unionism, particularly targeting the Mexican American workers in the early 1950s. [26]

In addition to workplace violations, the film exposed gender inequality in the Mexican American community through the central character of Esperanza. Salt of the Earth highlighted women’s participation in the strikes through various roles including public activities, letter writing, and picketing. According to Deborah Rosenfelt, Salt of the Earth addressed domesticity and child rearing as important political issues. The film condemned macho attitudes as women battled to subvert their inferior places within the family and the community.[27] The picture was shot in 1953 and underwent many battles in its effort to reach completion and distribution. Salt of the Earth fought a string of uphill battles including boycotts, congressional red baiting, local vigilantism and lockouts from Hollywood’s technical facilities.[28] While the film was well received abroad, it was denied regular commercial distribution in the United States but was advertised as showing in local Mexican theaters in La Opinion. Pirated copies of the film found their way to colleges and communities where audiences gathered to view the forbidden film’s stories of worker rights and gender equality. [29]

During her interview with La Opinion Rosaura Revueltas confessed that she had waited all her life to play Esperanza.[30]  In her recollections, she mentioned that production of the film had been postponed several times; however, the producer, director and crew refused to give up on the important story. This film came close to Revuelta’s heart. Growing up in a miner family, Revueltas learned firsthand of the miners’ struggles and sorrows. Her upbringing, she told the press, developed her social conscience and passion to understand the nature of inequality and injustice. “From the moment I became an actress I longed to play a role to honor “my people,” recalled Revueltas.[31] When Salt of the Earth came into production she accepted without hesitation and began dreaming of her role as Esperanza, the miner’s wife she would portray in the film. When asked about the censorship of the film, Revueltas remembered being interrogated on several occasions by U.S. immigration officials who visited the lodge in Silver City where the cast and crew were staying. “They wanted to see my passport,” said Revueltas, and, she added, “they came to arrest me on the grounds that my passport lacked an admission seal. They told me that it was not serious that I could return to work the next day if a $500 bond was posted in El Paso” On March, 22, 1954, La Opinion reported on the censorship of the film under the title “Censura en Sal de La Tierra.”[32] (Censorship in Salt of the Earth). The article stated that the movie had been filmed in U.S. territory and, echoing Revuelta’s recollections, it had been interrupted under Washington’s order because “the U.S. government felt that the dialogue had communistic undertones and tendencies.”  Actress Rosaura Revueltas was deported after being detained for hours, stated La Opinion. The unfinished scenes were completed at a later time.[33]

Revueltas recalled interrogations into her political allegiance; specifically, if she was a member of the communist party and if she was doing a communist film. In her memoir, Revueltas revealed that producer Paul Jarrico followed her to El Paso to post the bond. As a result of her leading role in Salt of the Earth, Revueltas states that she was described as a “dangerous woman” who belonged in Mexico. Due to the political pressure demanding that she leave, Rosaura returned to Mexico while filmmakers continued on with the film. “I carried home with me the spirit that had made this picture possible, the determination that would see it completed, and the inner assurance that a handful of ignorant and frightened men could never prevent its being shown to the peoples of the world.” [34] According to La Opinion, after much review, Mexico had authorized Mexican audiences to see the film once Spanish subtitles were added.[35]

La Opinion celebrated Mexican leading actresses and actors, such as Rosaura Revueltas, even when controversial stories surrounded their favorite stars. In addition to promoting Mexican estrellas, La Opinion advertised Mexican musicians touring the U.S. Southwest with equal zeal and support. In the year 1950, for fifty cents a ticket, La Opinion encouraged audience members to attend affordable Mexican performances. The Trio Los Panchos was reviewed by the press as a popular traveling act from Mexico playing at the Los Angeles Teatro Mason where they were received with “open arms.”[36] La Opinion praised the group’s big personalities, saying that they knew “how to capture an audience right from the start. Their voices are sweet and expressive, the tone is emotional and their lyrics profound.”[37]  Discussing the group’s performance, La Opinion argued that the musicians’ appeal stemmed from their “masterful interpretation of a variety of Latin American music.” However, La Opinion liked the Trio Los Panchos best when “playing their own melodies and songs.” The incredible fan based generated by the Trio’s stemmed from the group’s struggles. Their songs reminded Mexican-descent fans of Mexican culture and traditions. “When they go home,” stated La Opinion, “Mexico inspires them to write and play new lyrics, and we benefit here when they play them in the United States.[38]

Part of their appeal resulted from their ability to play a variety of Spanish music that included the Argentinean tango, the Colombian cumbia, the pasodoble from Spain and samba from Brazil. The group earned labels such as “the ambassadors of romantic music,” masking the  group’s battle with depression, the isolation that came from leaving home and “the hell of drugs and alcohol,” that afflicted the musicians as a result of feeling rootless and at times dejected. [39] Throughout their sixty-year history the trio developed a unique style known as “the pachista style,” three voices, two guitars and a requinto, an instrument invented by one of the group’s members, Alfredo Gil. The Trio Los Panchos performed at local Los Angeles’ theaters, receiving accolades by La Opinion music reviewers. The group initially came together in New York in 1944, singing popular Mexican corridos and rancheras, yet later, the group gained international fame throughout Latin America and Spain with romantic boleros. At a time of Cold War discrimination against immigrants, The Trio came to the U.S. with dreams of conquering the country through their song. Their popularity with the Mexican community in the U.S. did not go unnoticed.  The U.S. military invited the group to help raise the spirits of soldiers serving in the war.  As a result, the group received contracts and invitations to perform in many venues, including combat zones where U.S. soldiers were stationed.

As Mexican Americans enlisted into the ranks of the U.S. military to demonstrate support of US defense goals, Mexican entertainers realized, too, that music could also be used to respond to the patriotic call of service. The U.S. had created a program to entertain and support injured soldiers in combat. In order to participate; however, La Opinion reported that Mexican performers had to become U.S. citizens and renounce their Mexican citizenship. In the case of El Trio, musician Hernando was already a citizen through his Puerto Rican heritage; however the remaining members temporarily embraced American citizenship in order to perform in military camps earning high praise from the press.[40]  Following the war, the musicians returned to Mexico to find that they could not work there due to their US status. In a show of allegiance to Mexico, they renounced their U.S citizenship and renationalized themselves as Mexicans.

Figure 4: El Trio Los Panchos

La Opinion celebrated the group as a truly Mexican band and announced shows, locations and the accessibility of entry fees.  Through advertisements that praised Mexican style, culture and community La Opinion helped the careers of Mexican entertainers on the other side of the border. The film industry in Mexico capitalized on El Trio’s popularity and signed them to appear in over thirty three movies.[41] Alternating between recordings, live shows and tours, El Trio performed in California during the 1950s decade for 14 weeks, making a reported twenty thousand dollars per week.[42] The group participated in an extensive tour that started in 1944 and lasted through 1951. Commenting on the tour, La Opinion referred to the group as “the most perfect musical trio in America.”[43] Their ability to play multiple Spanish style songs led their appeal to reach the east coast, capturing audiences in New York, especially Puertoricans and Dominicans. In 1948 the group relocated to Mexico, where they were received with open arms by Jorge Negrete, a beloved member of the Mexican acting dynasty.

Jorge Negrete received frequent praise on the pages of La Opinion. Like the case of El Trio, Mexican audiences in Los Angeles embraced Negrete’s love of Mexico, which he poured into his songs. Negrete’s music echoed the familiar sentiments of homesickness felt by working-class immigrants living in the U.S. Fiercely nationalistic, Negrete poured his love of Mexico into his songs: “Mexico will always be first and foremost….Mexico, dearly beloved, if I die far away from you let them say that I’m just sleeping and may they bring me back home to you.”[44] Adored in Mexico as in the U.S. southwest, Negrete embodied Mexican regionalism, traditional customs, inspiration and hope. “A profoundly loved man,” as his daughter described him, he helped to raise the reputation of Mexico’s cinematographic industry and “prevented the chaos within it.” Negrete would prove instrumental in the development of Mexico’s international film recognition. He contributed to the spreading of Mexico’s artistic industry within the international market, especially while leading as the president of the acting association in Mexico. Negrete would help El Trio singers expand their careers into film. In turn, the group remained thankful for Negrete’s support, especially when Negrete battled cirrhosis, which ultimately cost him his life.[45] When Negrete became gravely ill, the group visited him in the hospital, a touching meeting captured by La Opinion which quoted Negrete scolding El Trio for their bad habits: “You, gentlemen, who have abused alcohol, drugs and been bandits in this life look so healthy, and me I have been a sober man and this fatal illness falls upon me. Why?” He was described as a “corajudo” (quick tempered man) who took everything to heart.  When Negrete died in Houston in 1953, his remains were sent to Mexico, as Negrete had always wished. The popular actor died as he was preparing for a week long engagement at the Million Dollar. Reports of his death prompted an outpour of grief, as fans rushed to the theater and the Cedar-Sinai medical center hoping that news of his death had been nothing but malicious rumors. La Opinion reported on his illness, keeping an anxious community apprised of the decaying health of their beloved star.

On August 28, 1953, Mexican comedic superstar Mario Moreno Cantiflas, sent Jorge Negrete,  his “best regards and wishes for a speedy recovery.” “Strange,” stated La Opinion, “since Mario Moreno Cantinflas and Negrete were not speaking.”[46] While La Opinion’s entertainment section hailed the virtues of its beloved artistic Mexican talents, the paper also enjoyed reporting on animosities between the stars, highlighting disagreements between performers and uncovering secret romances and explosive outbursts on set.  The paper’s frequent commentary on Mexican entertainers’ moral character helped to propel popular actors into rising stardom. When entertainer Mario Moreno Cantinflas visited the dying Negrete at the hospital, La Opinion stated that Cantinflas’ visit had been “thoughtful, well received and kind.”

At the height of his popularity, La Opinion praised Jorge Negrete’s films and also published gossip on his whereabouts and his presumed romances. On August 28, 1953, La Opinion broke the undercover romance with Mexican diva, Maria Felix who was said to be promised to another. “Even though Maria Felix is engaged to Carlos Thompson, she and Negrete are living a happy romance which, our sources tell us, will lead them to the altar.”[47] In the gossip column, La Opinion asked, “Can you believe that Maria Felix, a woman with beauty, money and fame would settle for Jorge Negrete? She’s been picking him up every night after his film Tal Para Cual ( To Each Their Own, Rogelio A Gonzalez, 1953). She’s been driving a luxurious car and trying to hide so no one will know she’s in love with him.” While La Opinion had declared Maria Felix “out of Negrete’s league,” Felix married him, becoming his third wife and staying with him until his death. Heartbroken, Maria Felix oversaw an honorable burial for her husband in Mexico as had been his wish. She would reject a Mexican DC-3 airplane sent by the Mexican government to bring Negrete’s remain back to Mexico, deeming the aircraft  “unsuitable” to carry Negrete and to his legacy. [48]

La Opinion’s mixed reviews of Negrete, his life and his work echoed the star’s contentious reputation in Mexico where he was both loved and abhorred. In Mexico, Negrete had boldly taken on the film industry’s biggest battles regarding salary disputes emerging as the most vocal advocate of the film industry’s labor union. Negrete’s unwavering support of labor unions earned him both fans and enemies. As his daughter, Diana Negrete, recalls in the biography of her father, Negrete worked tirelessly for the creation of the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Produccion Cinematografica de la Republica Mexicana, a labor union that protected the rights of cinema employees in the republic of Mexico. Negrete longed to create a true brotherhood of Mexican and foreign actors across the world.[49] In 1951 La Opinion published a story retelling Negrete’s efforts to bring financial prosperity to all Mexican actors:

I am very committed to helping my fellow actors work within an environment of fairness, equity and justice. I am fighting their fight. The artistic field does not offer any support nor guarantee to actors and I do not think this is fair. I do not think that actors should be used as helpless lambs that labor themselves to the ground while others enrich their pockets at the actors’ expense.[50]

Negrete and Mexican popular comedian, Mario Moreno “Cantinflas stood out among La Opinion’s most talked about stars. Like the case of Negrete who through song and acts helped Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles recall nostalgic memories of home, Cantinflas would rise to stardom through his use of humor to elicit sympathy for the Mexican underdog. Mexican immigrants in the U.S. connected to Cantinflas’ portrayals of a Mexican working man struggling to survive. The comedian typically portrayed an outcast who accepted his socio-economic place in a harsh world while poking fun of the system that oppressed him. Through his use of double talk, jumbling together multiple conversations that typically undermined authority Cantinflas portrayed the shiftless migrant who triumphed through trickery over authorities in the United States.  In his book, Cantinflas and the Chaos of Mexican Modernity, Jeffrey M. Pilcher compared Cantinflas to Charlie Chaplin. As Pilcher put it, “Cantinflas represented the human debris of industrialization, rootless migrants to the big city who survived by their wits in a bewildering environment.”[51]  Mario Moreno Cantinflas, says Pilcher, became a symbol of Mexican national identity during Mexico’s transition from a traditional agrarian society to an industrial urban one.[52]

Through his popular performances advertised in La Opinion Cantinflas’ allowed Mexican working classes “a momentary release through laughter from the psychic demands and anxieties of masculine behavior.”[53] While his critics saw him as a symbol of the lowbrow Mexican working class, La Opinion celebrated him and promoted him enthusiastically throughout the 1950s. On March 23, 1954, he was listed as the actor earning the highest salary in Mexico. According to the Asociacion Nacional de Actores, Mario Moreno Cantinflas had earned an impressive one and a half million Mexican pesos between movies, theaters and tours in 1953 alone.[54] La Opinion helped to turn Cantinflas’ films into tremendous commercial successes in the U.S. Southwest. While intellectuals in Mexico critiqued his manner of speech, Cantinflas had a strong appeal with the masses and especially Mexican migrants and blue-collar workers. Prior to making it big, Cantinflas had experienced poverty in his childhood and occasionally gone hungry. His early struggles led the masses to embrace him.[55] Like Negrete who fought the fight of the lesser known actor, Cantinflas was concerned with the plight of the poor and used humor to critique and ridicule abusive leaders.

La Opinion helped Mexican comedians touring the U.S. to reach stardom.  Advertising performances with slogans such as “popular con precios populares,” (popular at affordable prices), Cantinflas’ artistic earnings were second by another popular entertainer German Valdes “Tin Tan,” who earned 200,000 Mexican pesos in 1952. However, despite advertising performances by Cantinflas and Tin Tan La Opinion frequently critiqued the stars on the same page. La Opinion movie experts referred to mass-appealing entertainers as low-brow comedians who tainted Mexico’s reputation as a reputable film house. The entertainment section of La Opinion captured the paper’s contradictions between profit advertisement for mass audience shows and La Opinion’s own stance on high brow and low brow Mexican film productions. During a critique of Tin Tan’s performance in Matenme Porque Me Muero (Kill Me Because I’m Dying) directed by Ismael Rodriguez, in 1951, an anonymous film reviewer stated that the film failed to entertain and would likely appeal to a very narrow margin.[56] The critic expressed his dislike for poor quality comedies and blamed the low brow comedic genre for giving Mexico a bad reputation in film-making.

Figure 5: Mexican popular comedian, Mario Moreno “Cantinflas”

“For those who do not care about refined themes and classical acting, then this film is a win. However, it is a true shame that Mexican comedies are limited to exploitative, grotesque sensualities or vulgarities that devalue the audience’s intellectual abilities and our morality. Film producers and participants who contribute to the making of Mexican films ought to know that the audience needs and wants more.”[57] The critic went on to argue that in the desire to make movies for popular appeal and the alluring quick profit motive, Mexican filmmakers “produce the worst form of propaganda against Mexico outside its republic.[58] However, not all film critics writing for La Opinion agreed with this judgment of Tin Tan or his comedic style. On January 9, 1952, Tin Tan’s El Ceniciento (Cinderell-o, directed by Gilberto Martinez Solares in 1952) was reviewed as “another triumph for Tin Tan who accomplished his primary goal as a performer: to make people laugh and laugh hard.” The critic praised Tin Tan stating that whether the characters he represented washed clothes or shined shoes, his performances focused on turning everyday situations into a comedy.[59]   Like the case of Cantinflas, Tin Tan had risen above cultural distinctions and “helped to unite audiences above languages because he mixed them in his speech. He rose above prejudice because he ignored it.”[60] His daughter described Tin Tan as a man who brought cultures together; who was able to “a matrimoniar a los Americans con los mexicanos” (to marry Americans with Mexicans).”[61]

Tin Tan developed a particular form of conduct, opting to ridicule himself to ease the antagonistic relationship between his mother, who was of humble Mexican background, and his grandmother, a woman of Italian descent who thought of herself of superior racial background. To cope with the racial and generational tensions at home, Tin Tan used humor as a defense mechanism, a reaction through which he was able to negate his reality and instead create another. His dedication to uplift discriminated workers through humor helped him to build a tremendous career as a Mexican comedic hero in the US southwest.  La Opinion routinely advertised Tin Tan’s performances through cartoonish images of the actor, portraying him with exaggerated big lips, a huge grin and baggy clothes.  He was considered one of the architects of Spanglish who popularized the image of the Pachuco, a Mexican American youth who belonged to neighborhood gangs. Tin Tan appeared in over one-hundred films and dubbed three of them for Walt Disney Studios.  La Opinion frequently referred to him as one of the most important Mexican entertainers of all time, and advertised his traveling act throughout Los Angeles’ venues.[62]

The Cine section of La Opinion helped readers connect and reflect upon a shared public culture. The actors and entertainers were widely known to the Mexican public who adored them. Mexican movies and actors were depicted as ambassadors of Mexican culture and represented in La Opinion as both popular and elite. Entertainers played a key role integrating the community through performances that recalled familiar Mexican problems. Promoted by La Opinion, Mexican stars journeyed to America were lucrative tours awaited them. And while La Opinion boosted attendance to films and shows, the paper’s film critics emerged as arbiters of taste attempting to sacrilize culture by establishing guidelines for the appropriate ways to read and analyze Mexican cinema. [63] Through advertisements and reviews La Opinion played a role in disciplining and training audiences. Thus, columnists contributed to the paper’s larger project of cultural uplift, “educating and refining a laborious people.”[64]

The community appreciated the accessibility of Mexican popular entertainment away from home. In a diverse nation, the criteria for Mexican culture’s aesthetic promoted Mexican cultural pride on the basis of separation and unwillingness to assimilate into Hollywood ways.  Movie critics and advice columnists were champions of Mexican culture promising both relief from disorder and an avenue to cultural legitimacy.  As audiences “escaped into culture” entertainment served as a mechanism that made it possible for Mexican audiences living and working in Los Angeles to retreat into their own private spaces and transform them through their own rules.[65] Attending the Teatros Mayan, Million Dollar and California allowed audiences to turn local spaces into enclaves of culture where audiences could indulge in their own cultural predilections and feel connected through performances that echoed familiar modes of behavior that were shared and commonly understood.  By promoting news, interviews, and gossip La Opinion helped Mexican performers traveling to the U.S. southwest to receive a cultural and sales boost. In the process, the paper hailed Mexicanness and encouraged the community to continue living and working in the U.S. without forgetting home.



La Opinion, (Los Angeles, California).

Los Angeles Times, (Los Angeles, California).


Alejandro, Julio. Un Divorcio. VHS. Directed by Emilio Gomez Muriel. Mexico, DF, Mexico: Argel Films, 1953.

Cortazar, Ernesto. Los Hijos de Maria Morales. VHS. Directed by Fernando de Fuentes, Mexico, DF, Mexico: Diana, S.A., 1952.

Cortazar, Ernesto. Tal Para Cual. VHS. Directed by Rogelio A Gonzalez. Mexico DF, Mexico: Mier Y Brooks Producciones,  1953.

De Urdimalas, Pedro. Matenme Porque Me Muero. VHS. Directed by Ismael Rodriguez, Mexico, DF, Mexico: Estudios Churubusco Azteca, SA., 1951.

Garcia, Juan. El Ceniciento. VHS. Directed by Gilberto Martinez Solares. Mexico DF, Mexico: Mier Y Brooks Producciones, 1952.

Gomez Landero, Humberto. El Hijo Desobediente. VHS. Directed by Humberto Gomez Landero. Mexico DF, Mexico: AS Films Producciones Grovas,  1945.

Wilson, Michael. Salt of the Earth. VHS. Directed by Herbert J. Biberman. Bayard New Mexico, USA: Independent Productions, 1954.


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Byars, Jackie. All that Hollywood Allows, Re-Reading Gender in the 1950s Melodrama. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Chacon, Ramon D.  “The Chicano Immigrant Press in Los Angeles: The Case of El Heraldo de Mexico, 1916-1920.” Journalism History 4:2 (1977): 48.

Chodorow, Nancy. Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

Correa, Armando. Legends en Español: The 100 Most Iconic Hispanic Entertainers of all Time. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2008.

Fernandez, Celina. Los Panchos. Madrid: Ediciones Martinez Roca, S.A., 2005.

Groves, Martha. “Restoration Planned for `Million Dollar Building Developer Buys Downtown Landmark.” Los Angeles Times (Pre-1997 Fulltext), Feb 10, 1989. http://search.proquest.com/docview/280596322?accountid=25347.

Gurza, Agustin. “Culture Mix: Million Dollar Dream; Robert Voskanian has Spent the Legendary Theaters Title Sum to Restore it as a Multicultural Venue.” Los Angeles Times, Apr 12, 2008. http://search.proquest.com/docview/422214580?accountid=25347.

Hershfield, Joanne .Mexican Cinema/Mexican Woman, 1940-1950. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 1996.

Johnson, Reed. “Culture Monster; The Global Stage; Many Faces of a Mysterious Land; Astrid Hadad Takes on the Highs and Lows of Mexico at the Million Dollar Theater,” Los Angeles Times, Oct 19, 2011. http://search.proquest.com/docview/898822916?accountid=25347

Keller, Gary D. Hispanics and United States Film: An Overview Handbook. Tempe, AZ: Bilingual Press, 1994.

Levine, Lawrence. Highbrow Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Lipsitz, George. Rainbow At Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Lorence, James J. The Suppression of Salt of the Earth. How Hollywood, Big Labor and, Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in Cold War America. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

Negrete, Diana. Jorge Negrete. Mexico, D.F: Editorial Diana, 1987.

Noriega, Chon. The Ethnic Eye. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Pilcher, Jeffrey M. Cantinflas And the Chaos of Mexican Modernity. Wilmington, DL: Scholarly Resources Inc. Wilmington, 2001.

Quintanilla, Michael. “Fashion Landmark / A World-Famous Store is Losing its Struggle to Survive.; Once Bustling, Now Bust; Victors, a Once-Popular Haberdashery, has Few Customers and is for Sale. the Downtown Buildings Widely Known Murals Tell of the Citys Rich Mexican Heritage. what Will Happen to them?” Los Angeles Times, Dec 25, 1998. http://search.proquest.com/docview/421355201?accountid=25347.

Rodriguez, Clara E. Latin Looks: Images of Latinas and Latinos in the U.S. Media. Boulder,CO: Westview Press, 1998

Rosenfelt, Deborah. Salt of the Earth. New York, NY: The Feminist Press, 1978.

Luis Rutiaga, Mario Moreno Cantinflas. D.F. México: Grupo Editorial Tomo, 2004.

Trevino, Joseph. “Million Dollar Theater Set to Reopen; Seeking New Life for the Former Showcase of Hollywood and Latino Stars, Managers Schedule Weekend Variety shows Catering to Hispanic Audiences,” Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1999. http://search.proquest.com/docview/421494147?accountid=25347 (accessed August 8, 2011).

Valdes Julian, Rosalia. La Historia Inedita de Tin Tan. D.F. México: Editorial Planeta Mexicana, 2003.

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[1] Ramon D. Chacon. “The Chicano Immigrant Press in Los Angeles: The Case of El Heraldo de Mexico, 1916-1920.” Journalism History 4:2 (1977): 48.

[2] Reed Johnson, “Culture Monster: The Global Stage; Many Faces of a Mysterious Land; Astrid Hadad Takes on the Highs and Lows of Mexico at the Million Dollar Theater,” Los Angeles Times, Oct 19, 2011. http://search.proquest.com/docview/898822916?accountid=25347 (accessed September 21, 2011).

[3] Gary D. Keller, Hispanics and United States Film: An Overview Handbook (Tempe: Bilingual Press, 1994), 9.

[4] La Opinion movie and entertainment section referred to the Mayan theater as El Maya. The historical landmark opened in 1927 in downtown Los Angeles. El Maya initially showcased musical comedies. By 1929, audiences attended the theater to watch Hollywood films. The popular theater transitioned into Spanish language films in the 1940s while continuing to host occasional stage shows. It was designed by Stiles O. Clements and Mexican artist and archeologist Francisco Cornejo was hired to sculpt the building’s Mexican, Mayan and Aztec motifs. The theater underwent renovations during the 1990s and now thrives as a nightclub.

[5] Joseph Trevino, “Million Dollar Theater Set to Reopen; Seeking New Life for the Former Showcase of Hollywood and Latino Stars, Managers Schedule Weekend Variety shows Catering to Hispanic Audiences,” Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1999. http://search.proquest.com/docview/421494147?accountid=25347 (accessed August 8, 2011).

[6] Joseph Trevino, Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1999.

[7] La Opinion, June 11, 1950.

[8] La Opinion, March 21, 1954.

[9] Joanne Hershfield, Mexican Cinema/Mexican Woman, 1940-1950 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006), 4.

[10] Hershfield, 4.

[11] Hollywood melodramas also critiqued women’s roles in the 1950s casting leading actresses as glamorous beauties caught in the conflict between careering and domesticity. See Dolores Tierney, “Silver Sling-Backs and Mexican Melodrama: Salon Mexico and Danzon,” Screen 38:4 Winter (1997): 361.

[12] Jackie Byars, All that Hollywood Allows, Re-Reading Gender in the 1950s Melodrama (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 93.

[13] Armando Correa, Legends en Español: The 100 Most Iconic Hispanic Entertainers of all Time (New York: Penguin Group, 2008), 114.

[14] Clara E. Rodriguez, Latin Looks: Images of Latinas and Latinos in the U.S. Media (Boulder: Westview Press, 1998), 131.

[15] Jackie Byars, All that Hollywood Allows, Re-Reading Gender in the 1950s Melodrama, (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 131.

[16] Byars, 54.

[17]  Nancy Chodorow, Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory (Polity Press: United Kingdom, 1989), 103.

[18] La Opinion, September 5, 1953.

[19] La Opinion, September 5, 1953.

[20] La Opinion, October 11, 1952.

[21] La Opinion, October 11, 1952.

[22] La Opinion, October 11, 1952.

[23] La Opinion, September 22, 1951.

[24] James J. Lorence, The Suppression of Salt of the Earth. How Hollywood, Big Labor and, Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in Cold War America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999), 6.

[25] George Lipsitz, Rainbow At Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 293.

[26] Lorence, 9.

[27] Deborah Silverton Rosenfelt, Salt of the Earth (New York: The Feminist Press, 1978), 24.

[28] Rosenfelt, Salt of the Earth , 94.

[29] Rosenfelt, 94.

[30] La Opinion, October 18, 1952.

[31] Rosenfelt, 176.

[32] La Opinion, March 22, 1954.

[33] La Opinion, March 22, 1954.

[34] Rosenfelt, Salt of the Earth, 176.

[35] La Opinion, March 22, 1954.

[36] La Opinion, June 11, 1950.

[37] La Opinion, June 11, 1950.

[38] La Opinion, June 11, 1950.

[39] Celina Fernandez, Los Panchos (Madrid: Ediciones Martinez Roca, S.A., 2005), 35.

[40] Fernandez, Los Panchos, 34.

[41] Fernandez, Los Panchos, 43.

[42] La Opinion, November 17, 1950.

[43] La Opinion, November 17, 1950.

[44] Correa, Armando, Legends en Espanol: The 100 Most Iconic Hispanic Entertainers of all Time  (Penguin Group: New York, 2008), 146.

[45] La Opinion, August 22, 1953.

[46] La Opinion, August 28, 1953.

[47] La Opinion, August 28, 1953.

[48] La Opinion, August 28, 1953.

[49] Diana Negrete, Jorge Negrete (Mexico, D.F: Editorial Diana, 1987), 12.

[50] La Opinion, October 22, 1951.

[51] Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Cantinflas And the Chaos of Mexican Modernity (Delaware: Scholarly Resources Inc: Wilmington, 2001), xv.

[52] Pilcher,Cantinflas And the Chaos of Mexican Modernity, xvii.

[53] Pilcher, xviii.

[54] La Opinion, March 28, 1954.

[55] Luis Rutiaga, Mario Moreno Cantinflas (Mexico, D.F.: Grupo Editorial Tomo, 2004), 2.

[56] La Opinion, January 9, 1952.

[57] La Opinion, January 9, 1952.

[58] La Opinion, January 9, 1952.

[59] La Opinion, January 9, 1952.

[60] Rosalia Valdes Julian, La Historia Inedita de Tin Tan (Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Planeta Mexicana, 2003),12.

[61] Ibid, 12.

[62] Correa, Legends en Español, 88.

[63] For theories on the sacralization of culture, see Lawrence Levine, Highbrow Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 88.

[64] Levine, 201.

[65] Levine, Highbrow Lowbrow, 177.



Soledad Vidal is the author of “Politics, Community And Pleasure: The Making Of Mexican-American Cold War Narratives In The Pages Of La Opinion.” The dissertation is organized around the discourse of the American dream; specifically, how the desire for consumption, liberal citizenship and labor in post World War II America produced specific accounts of migration in the pages of La Opinion. Her research interests lie in print culture and immigrant histories. She currently works at Soka University of America as a Writing Center Manager and Visiting Assistant Professor in Rhetoric and Composition.


The Single Female Intruder – David Surman

Abstract: This essay examines a contemporary cultural icon that operates across distinct media boundaries, as a kind of transmedia archetype. Of interest is the visuality of what I call the ‘single female intruder’, which emerges as the intersection of a variety of low cultural forms, and has its origins in the Japanese visual and literary culture of the nineteenth century. What are the characteristics of the single female intruder? She wears closely fitted clothing, which describe the shape of her body, though she is tall, willowy and androgynous. She comes equipped with a variety of powerful weapons and technologies, that she keeps secreted away on her person, and combines this armoury with expert knowledge of a variety of relevant disciplines. She is always proficient in martial arts, though her willingness to fight is measured against the dramas of her past, tempering the speed of her sword-hand. Her movement is characterised by an impossible elegance, and she seems preternaturally adapted to exploit any space that she comes to occupy. The technologies she deploys are an extension of the physical body, and never encumber her.

Figure 1: Vanessa Z. Schneider in the videogame P.N.03 (2003)


Within the generic realities of film, animation, games and comic books, there are many varied female archetypes. Indeed, the representation of women in the media inevitably segues into the active discussion of typologies. The distribution of such types fall within the predefined boundaries of high and low, popular and peripheral, men’s and women’s culture. The effect and ideology of certain types has been actively debated in the humanities, and in particular in feminist criticism. Tanya Krzywinska has outlined the way in which cultural analyses of action heroines has orientated toward the critique of such icons as role models, within the frame of identity politics (Krzywinska, 2005, p. 3). In her critique of action heroines within videogames, she suggests that the critique of representation is limited insofar as it fails to describe the dimensions of play and control that underpin the videogame experience.

This essay examines a contemporary cultural icon that operates across distinct media boundaries, as a kind of transmedia archetype. Of interest is the visuality of what I call the ‘single female intruder’, which emerges as the intersection of a variety of low cultural forms, and has its origins in the Japanese visual and literary culture of the nineteenth century. With the ‘recentering’ of globalised media from its traditional North American power-base toward new Asian counterparts (that has come as a consequence of sustained growth in Japan’s media and cultural industries), such icons have been disseminated to receptive western audiences. The characteristics of the single female intruder are defined as a consequence of the media that converge to form the transmedia space of contemporary popular culture. Their positioning as low cultural forms unifies the constituent fields that converge in the figure of the ‘single female intruder’.

What are the characteristics of the single female intruder? She wears closely fitted clothing, which describe the shape of her body, though she is tall, willowy and androgynous. She comes equipped with a variety of powerful weapons and technologies, that she keeps secreted away on her person, and combines this armoury with expert knowledge of a variety of relevant disciplines. These will usually include computer programming, reconnaissance, research and investigation. She is always proficient in martial arts, though her willingness to fight is measured against the dramas of her past, tempering the speed of her sword-hand. Her movement is characterised by an impossible elegance, and she seems preternaturally adapted to exploit any space that she comes to occupy. The technologies she deploys are an extension of the physical body, and never encumber her.

She is an amalgam of high trash clichés and narrative conceits; often orphaned, wracked by bereavement, seeking vengeance, driven by the urgency of an incurable illness. Such melodramatic tropes are buried beneath the sobriety and perfection of grey-white skin, expressionless and captivating. She is two people in one body; the face of an angel, the heart of a demon; but never duplicitous, her expressions of emotion are sincere and forthright, often taking place in secluded confessionals away from the song of carnage. She is never the homemaker, though the riddle of such happiness might emerge in moments of reprieve. She is a nomad, constantly on the move, often moving out of the frying pan and into the fire. She is more a heroine of generic reality than everyday life, a celebration of the seductive tropes of contemporary fiction and the intermingling of technology, imagination and desire.

The single female intruder is so ubiquitous in contemporary popular culture that an examination of her sophisticated rhetoric is necessary. In the course of this article, I want to show how such an internationalised, post-modern archetype, which seemingly operates outside of any clearly defined cultural boundaries, has origins in pre-modern Japanese culture. I shall argue that the history of this archetype can be seen as metonymic of the changing post-war relationship between American hegemony and the rise of Japanese popular culture as a new global centre. The proliferation of this archetype follows a very particular path, and its movement can be traced from aesthetic reforms in Japanese antiquity, subsequently retrieved in the 1970s by filmmakers and mangaka eager to revisit the culture of the Edo period. Hiroki Azuma has described how this internal appropriation of Edo period aesthetic and cultural values comes as a consequence of the cultural anxieties arising as a response to wartime defeat and American occupation. He writes,

Their preference toward the association between the 80s postmodern society and the premodern Edo can be easily explained once you recognize the abovementioned process of “domestication” of the postwar American culture. In the mid 80s, many Japanese were fascinated with their economical success and tried to erase or forget their traumatic memory of the defeat in World War Two. The re-evaluation of Edo culture is socially required in such an atmosphere (Azuma, 2001, np).

As I will explain, the tropes of ‘rikyu grey aesthetics’ and ‘the poison woman’ are retrieved and then celebrated within the generic reality of Japanese popular culture from the 1970s onwards. The ambiguous, seductive and controversial qualities of this historical figure consequently circulate within the growing international fandom for Japanese popular culture. From there, contemporary influences imbibe this peculiarly Japanese anti-heroine with a new agency, to embody principles of control and beauty in an age of technological anonymity and information terrorism. Influences that immediately spring to mind include videogames, action cinema, exploitation cinema, science fiction literature, in particular cyberpunk, fetish clothing and the goth, techno and electronic music scenes. Contemporary single female intruders reveal the traces of their Japanese antecedents in their sober demeanour, snow-white skin and mobile technologies. Like the massively successful franchises Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! The single female intruder is an ambassador for an alternative set of generic parameters in popular culture that assert the Japanese aesthetic, and is resolved in the interaction of multiple cultural centres.

In the first section of this paper, I will explore the Japanese antecedents to the single female intruder, with an emphasis on the relationship between simultaneous reforms in attitude to both colour and femininity. From there, I examine how Japanese film and literature of the mid-to-late twentieth century transformed this figure into a modern heroine first through exploitation, and then science fiction. I then want to examine briefly the transformation of this figure in the science fiction film and literature of 1980s America and Europe. The representations and descriptions generated by the likes of Ridley Scott and William Gibson play a central role in Japan’s imagining of itself and its iconography. To conclude, I examine how digital culture and convergence have effected the transformation of the single female intruder, and how her sophisticated rhetoric has been transformed to speak to our contemporary environment.

Poison Woman Dressed in Rikyu Grey

Figure 2: Hishikawa Moronobu “A Standing Woman”, c.1690.

The prehistory of the single female intruder archetype is much more culturally specific than it might first seem, since such characters nowadays enjoy an international audience. The archetype emerges from the changes in the construction of cultural attitudes to beauty and femininity around the time of the Meiji reformation of Japan. Single female intruders are invariably rebels, whether they are escaping societal reforms, in the case of Trinity in The Matrix trilogy (1999; 2003; 2003) or the eponymous Aeon Flux (2005), complex mercenaries like Vanessa Z. Schneider (fig.1) in the videogame P.N.03 (2003), or living technologies driven by existential angst like Major Makoto Kusanagi of Ghost in the Shell (1995).

Christine L. Marran has described the origins of what she has coined the ‘Poison Woman’, in stories made popular during the Meiji reformation (1868–1912) of the nineteenth century. They profile the lives of sensational women who had caused some sort of scandal, more often than not though the murder of her spouse, perhaps guilty of involvement in other high profile vices. She writes,

The long and changing tradition of writing about female criminals began with the rise of the newspaper serial. With such colourful nicknames as Demon Oden, Night Storm Okinu, Viper Omasa, and Lightning Oshin, to name only a few, the first poison women appeared as anti-heroes in Japan’s earliest serialized newspaper stories. These serials were based on the lives and crimes of real women. (Marran, 2007, p. xv)

The media furor around the activities of female criminals far exceeded the number and frequency of their activities, such was the public appetite for this new sensational fiction. Fiction and reality intermingled from the outset. As Marran asks ‘What national obsessions are articulated through this interest in the female convicts?’ (Ibid.). The rise of the poison woman archetype in Meiji period culture coincides with substantial changes in the representation of women in the woodblock prints of ukiyo-e artists. These changes would complicate the rhetoric surrounding such controversial women. In the Genroku era (1688–1704) the artist Hishikawa Moronobu,(1618–1694) was one of the pioneers of the ukiyo-e printmaking craft, and was known for his portraits of women and lifestyle scenes. In his imagery the women are voluptuous and feminine, shown in brightly coloured, voluminous robes (fig.2). In the later An’ei-Tenmei era (1772–1781; 1781–1789) the work of artist Suzuki Harunobu (1724–1770) departs from this archetypal, highly feminised aesthetic, and instead portrays women with long, slender bodies, demure faces and a spiritual intensity (fig.3). Kisho Kurokawa writes that,

This trend is of particular interest because it suggests the progressive denial of the generous voluptuousness that symbolized the prosperity and material abundance of pre-modern Japan up until Genroku. The An’ei/Tenmei aesthetic, on the other hand, was characterised by a nonsensual, eccentric, and non-physical beauty, expressing the spirit of an age of more refined ambiguity and a sophisticated rhetoric. (Kurokawa, 1997, p. 161)

Figure 3: Suzuki Harunobu “Crow and Heron, or Young Lovers Walking Together under an Umbrella in a Snowstorm”, c. 1769


This new aesthetic of ambiguity, which pervades Harunobu’s prints, becomes the face of the poison woman. Her crimes and misdemeanours are complicated and intensified by the aesthetic coding of this new feminine rhetoric. Marius B. Jensen writes of these ukiyo-e prints that, ‘The ladies they portray are not full faced, something the carver could not provide, but minimalist sketches; they return our stares unblinking and uninvolved. We admire them but do not relate to them, somewhat the way Saikaku’s readers regarded his characters’ (Jensen, 2002, 180). Earlier trends in popular aesthetics inform the recurrent representation of the poison woman in ukiyo-e printworks and in newspaper stories of the period. In the period preceding the Genroku era, a sudden fashion for the colour grey emerged in Japanese society, as a result of the cultural reforms to the tea ceremony introduced by Sen no Rikyu (1522–1591). Jensen writes, ‘Sen no Rikyu, who served as chief tea master to both Nobunaga and Hideyoshi […] was a figure who combined considerable personal wealth with a cult of simplicity and modesty that he codified in the tea ceremony of his day’ (Jensen, 2002, 117). Part of this revision of the ceremony was the advocation of the colour grey in clothing and décor. Kurokawa confirms the connection between tea ceremony reforms and the emerging taste for minimalism and grey,

Whereas until this time grey had been considered a vile colour conjuring up the image of rats and ashes, upon becoming known as Rikyu grey it was better appreciated. In the mid-Edo era it gained tremendous popularity—along with brown and indigo—as the embodiment of the aesthetic ideal of iki. Iki in this period is a complex concept but may be conveniently described as “richness in sobriety.” As the cult of tea spread beyond the upper classes to be practiced in the homes of ordinary people, so did the taste for grey. (Kurokawa, 1997, p. 160)

In his rehabilitation of Rikyu grey as an aesthetic category in its own right, Kurokawa emphasises the colour’s essential ambiguity, at times sinister, charming and charismatic. He describes how, ‘In contrast to the grey in the West, which is a combination of black and white, Rikyu grey was a combination of four opposing colours: red, blue, yellow and white’ (Kurokawa, 1991, p. 70). And so, the construction of the ‘poison woman’ in Meiji period mass culture intersects with two crucial aesthetic reforms, the adoption of Harunobu’s slender, ambiguous figure in the representation of women, and the rise of the widespread fashion for Rikyu grey, which emerged from reforms to the tea ceremony which emphasised simplicity, austerity and sobriety.

The Blizzard from the Netherworld

Figure 4: Yuki in Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime, Toshiya Fujita, 1973)

I want to make a leap now to postwar Japan, where the domestic influence of American occupation was having an effect on popular culture. Tensions arising from wartime defeat, aggressive industrialisation and urbanisation and a sense of cultural dissipation motivated media producers to rehabilitate narratives and character archetypes from the Edo period, as a means of cultural recovery and national reflection. The three tropes of the poison woman archetype, Harunobu’s willowy bodies, and the aesthetic sobriety of Rikyu grey are consolidated in Yuki Kashima (fig.4), heroine of the Japanese exploitation film Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime, Toshiya Fujita, 1973). Fujita’s film, based on the manga by Kazuo Koike, follows the journey of Yuki, played by Meiko Kaji, who seeks bloody vengeance for the rape and murder of her mother and father at the hand of a gang of bandits. She is the quintessential poison woman, and her exploits are publicised in the course of the film by newspaper reporter Ashio Ryuhei. The sophisticated and ambivalent quality of Yuki, and also the actress Meiko Kaji, is captured by Rikke Schubart, who writes,

The star persona of Meiko Kaji is located between the extraordinary powers of a castrating gaze and the existential malaise of a female killer. Kaji’s characters are haunted, if not by the past, but by a sense of not belonging, of being out of place and out of time. In this, they resemble the mythic hero. They are exceptionally beautiful, yet out of reach emotionally. Their weapon skills are at the expense of inner balance. They move faster than any opponent but lose track of life. (Schubert, 2007, p. 119)

The cult appeal of Asian exploitation heroines such as Yuki had the effect of reenergizing the antiquated archetype of the poison woman, along with the sensibility of Rikyu and the aesthetics of Harunobu. Poison women exist in every age, but the sword wielding she- demon of the Edo period had a romantic appeal all of its own. The unsettling and arresting beauty of her skin, and the ghostly perfection of Yuki’s ‘whitewashed-wall weave’ kabe shijira kimono, dominate the mise-en-scène. Suddenly, she breaks her repose to flip into action and attack; fountains of blood arc across the frame, her kimono drips wet, marking her as victorious in auspicious red and white.

Lady Snowblood marks the overlap between the icon of poison woman and what I call the ‘single female intruder’. Concealed within her umbrella, her secret sword is idiosyncratic, and operates within a sophisticated rhetoric that emphasises not only martial power, but also skills in deception, persuasion and elegance. The attraction of the character arises from repeated emphases on sharp contrasts, and this is continuous with the expanded principle of Rikyu offered by Kurokawa. Her subordinate shuffle is broken by sudden and supernatural agility; her sword strikes are unwavering, and land with the spirit of hissho (absolute victory). The vacillation between opposites characterise the single female intruder; she has brutality and elegance, bloodlust and sobriety, movement and stillness in equal measure. Kurokawa connects this principle to the baroque, he writes, ‘In his book on the baroque, Eugenio D’ors states that when conflicting intentions are bound together in a single motion, the resulting style is by definition baroque’ (Kurokawa, 1997, p. 170). Later he adds that, ‘The “baroque” essence to which I refer is represented by the mutual resistance and harmony of weight and drift, stillness and movement, straight and curves lines’ (p. 175).

American Idols

Post-war industrialisation and the rise of commodity culture have placed technology at the centre of the Japanese popular imagination. At the same time as filmmakers like Fujita withdrew into the images of Edo Japan to draw sustenance, others, like manga and anime artist Osamu Tezuka, were thinking forward into imaginary futures, populated by the dream of robot, cyborg and alien life. The ‘single female intruder’ is the recombination of these two sensibilities, at once strongly reminiscent of her Edo counterparts, and also situated within film or gameworlds that are nonetheless ostensibly works of science fiction. She emerges as a coherent iconic figure in the 1980s. The transformation of the poison woman in to the single female intruder takes place in the figure of Molly Millions in William Gibson’s short story Johnny Mnemonic (1981), and in the character of Pris in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Gibson’s lifelong obsession with Japanese culture is evident throughout his literature to date, and traces of the influences of the multifaceted concept of the poison woman are evident. Taken for granted, moreover, is the place of Rikyu grey, both literally as a colour sense, and as a philosophy of ambiguity and contrasts, and the idealism of Harunobu’s slender courtesans. The entrance of Molly Millions echoes that of Yuki in Lady Snowblood. The same emphasis on concealed technology, and a lethal capability, shroud the character in a mist of ambiguity and tightly wound sexuality.

‘Hey,’ said a low voice, feminine, from somewhere behind my right shoulder, ‘you cowboys sure aren’t having too lively a time.’

‘Pack it, bitch,’ Lewis said, his tanned face very still.

Ralfi looked blank.

‘Lighten up. You want to buy some good free base?’

She pulled up a chair and quickly sat before either of them could stop her. She was barely inside my fixed field of vision, a thin girl with mirrored glasses, her dark hair cut in a rough shag. She wore black leather, open over a T-shirt slashed diagonally with stripes of red and black.

‘Eight thou a gram weight.’

Lewis snorted his exasperation and tried to slap her out of the chair. Somehow he didn’t quite connect, and her hand came up and seemed to brush his wrist as it passed. Bright blood sprayed the table. He was clutching his wrist white-knuckle tight, blood trickling from between his fingers.

But hadn’t her hand been empty? (Gibson, 1981, p. 18)

The description of Molly emphasises her stature and costume, and the scene is characterised by an anxious stillness, which breaks into sudden action. Like Yuki’s hidden sword, Molly’s ‘weapons’ aren’t disclosed, but their effect enjoys a glorious description, again reminiscent of the exploitation film aesthetic of bloody carnage found in Lady Snowblood. Later, the secrets of Molly’s fatal frame are laid bare:

‘Chiba. Yeah. See, Molly’s been Chiba, too.’ And she showed me her hands, fingers slightly spread. Her fingers were slender, tapered, very white against the polished burgundy nails. Ten blades snicked straight out from their recesses beneath her nails, each one a narrow, double-edged scalpel in pale blue steel. (p. 21)

Molly’s finger blades are like Yuki’s concealed sword, in that they form a highly personalised accessory crucial to their survival in a world that is largely hostile to them. Through them their bodies become ‘trick machines’ designed to entrap, confuse, and terrorise their opponents. The complex rhetoric of hidden capability runs through the single female intruder, and is most apparent in the gynoid half-machine characters that have appeared since Molly first took to the streets of Chiba.

Transnational Assassins

Figure 5: Beatrix in Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)

Within the generic reality of convergent media culture, the tropes of the single female intruder have folded in on themselves, and, while the poison woman was penned in direct relation to the changes in society, the single female intruder of recent film and game texts is not so motivated to comment on changes in culture. She operates, like Beatrix in Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, within the “movie-world”, that is, within the circular distribution of generic styles, codes and conventions.

While the single female intruder certainly develops, in contemporary digital culture, the aesthetic, form and rhetoric of the femme fatale and other types of female killer (see Schubert, 2007), my interest lies with the long history that underpins her making, and the politics of globalisation she traverses. Her seductive deadly methods evoke fear outside of the textual worlds she inhabits, since she, like the ninja kids of Naruto, is an iconic player in the global media game, and is metonymic of the massive changes taking place in the landscape of media power. Koichi Iwabuchi writes that,

Japan’s hitherto odourless cultural presence in the world has become more recognizably ”Japanese” as computer games and animation from Japan have grabbed large shares of overseas markets. Japan’s success in exporting cultural products that are unmistakably perceived as “Japanese” have evoked a sense of yearning and threat overseas, including fear of cultural invasion (Iwabuchi, 2004, p. 59).

The single female intruder has emerged as the most prominent action heroine type in recent years, with films released that seek to comment on our technologically driven, information culture. Her independent agency, computer expertise and athletic finesse position the single female intruder as a dominant fantasy of control for our time. Connecting body politics, privacy issues, technology and gender relations in the actions of this subtly orientalized superhero, contemporary media producers have created a figure as pertinent to our time as the muscle-bound action hero was to the 1980s. While the ‘high trash’ of summer blockbusters, videogames and exploitation films might suggest that the single female intruder is nothing more and techno-fetish and titillation, I hope to have shown, through an emphasis on her origins in Japanese aesthetics, that such characters are playing an instrumental role in the reorganisation of gendered heroism within transmedial representation.



Bullet Witch (Cavia, Inc./Atari, AQ Interactive, 2007)

Final Fantasy 12 (SquareEnix, 2006)

Ghost in the Shell (Exact/THQ, 1998)

Gun Valkyrie (Smilebit/BigBen Interactive, 2002)

Ico (Team Ico/SCE, 2002)

Oni (Bungie Studios/Rockstar Games, 2001)

P.N.03 [Product Number Three] (Capcom Production Studio 4/Capcom, 2003)

Panzer Dragoon Orta (Smilebit/Sega, 2003)

Panzer Dragoon Saga (Team Andromeda/Sega, 1998)

Perfect Dark (Rare/Rare, 2000)

Perfect Dark Zero (Rare/Rare, 2005)

Rez (United Game Artists/Sega, 2001)

Space Channel 5 (United Game Artists/Sega, 2000)

Space Channel 5: Part 2 (United Game Artists/Sega, 2003)

Tenchu: Fatal Shadows [Tenchu: Kurenai] (K2 LLC/Sega, 2005)

Tomb Raider (Core Design/EIDOS, 1996)

Films and Anime

Aeon Flux (Karyn Kusama, 2005)

Aeon Flux [Animated Series] (Peter Chung, 1995)

Bladerunner (Ridley Scott, 1982)

Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii, 1995)

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Mamoru Oshii, 2004)

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (Kenji Kamiyama, 2002-2003)

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig (Kenji Kamiyama, 2004-2005)

Shurayukihime [Lady Snowblood: Blizzard from the Netherworld] (Toshiya Fujita, 1973)

Shurayukihime: Urami Renga [Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance] (Toshiya Fujita, 1974)

Sympathy for Lady Vengance [Chinjeolhan Geumjassi] (Chan-wook Park, 2005)

The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999)

The Matrix: Reloaded (The Wachowski Brothers, 2003)

The Matrix: Revolutions (The Wachowski Brothers, 2003)


Kurata, H. Yamada, S. (2000 – present) Read or Die. Tokyo: Shueisha.

Shirow, M. (1989 – 1991) Ghost in the Shell. Tokyo: Kodansha.


Azuma, H. (2001). Superflat Japanese modernity, Retrieved [August, 01, 2007] from<http://www.hirokiazuma.com/en/texts/superflat_en1.html>

Gibson, W. (1981) Burning Chrome. London: Voyager.

Iwabuchi, K. (2002). Recentring globalisation: Popular culture and Japanese transnationalism. London: Duke University Press.

Iwabuchi, K. (2004). How Japanese is Pokémon?. In J. Tobin (Ed.), Pikachu’s global adventure: The rise and fall of Pokemon. London: Duke University Press. pp. 53-79.

Jensen, M. B. (2000) The Making of Modern Japan. London: Harvard.

Krzywinska, T. (2005) ‘Demon Girl Power: Regimes of Form and Force in videogames Primal and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, New Femininities Seminar Series, London, 9th


Kurokawa, K. (1991) Intercultural Architecture: The Philosophy of Symbiosis. Aia Press.

Kurokawa, K. (1997) Each One A Hero: The Philosophy of Symbiosis. London: Kodansha International.

Schubart, R. (2007) Super Bitches and Action Babes. London: MacFarland & Company, Inc.



David Surman is an artist and designer, based in Melbourne, Australia after migrating from the UK. Over the past 10 years he has worked in many different creative environments, and he is currently creative director and co-founder of Pachinko Pictures, an award-winning boutique design studio based in Melbourne. David has also pursued a career as a scholar and teacher, which has given him many more opportunities and challenges. He developed a pioneering degree programme in games design at Newport School of Art (University of Wales), which focused on the principles and processes of art and design for games; and was Lecturer in Multimedia Design at Swinburne University of Technology. David is currently completing a PhD in videogame aesthetics at Brunel University, and holds a Masters in Film and Television from Warwick University and a Bachelors in Animation from the Newport School of Art, Media and Design.

Creating Godzilla’s media tourism: Comparing fan and local government practices – Craig Norris


Fan pilgrimages to media locations have been variously described as fads or underground activities. More recently there has been a trend to consider cult media tourism as increasingly incorporated into official tourism branding and promotion strategies. This article details how fans and industry ‘play’ with popular culture to experiment with their surroundings in new and novel ways. This phenomenon is observed through two cases: first, Saitama City’s attempt to appear in a Godzilla movie as documented in the BBC series Japanorama; and second, the experience of western Godzilla fans travelling to Japan. By discussing the similar ‘fan tools’ which are used by different stakeholders this article will show how locations can be reimagined into popular culture portals serving a variety of agendas.

Figure 1: Godzilla destroys Tokyo in Godzilla (Ishirō Honda, 1954)

In 2002 the BBC series Japanorama hosted by popular British entertainer Jonathan Ross ran an episode on Godzilla and the Japanese city of Saitama’s attempts to be destroyed in the next Godzilla film. As Ross explains, ‘Japanese cities crave the publicity that comes with a visit from Godzilla, and Saitama with its brand new city centre is a perfect setting for some Godzillian demolition’. Following a replay of Godzilla destroying various cities in Japan we are introduced to Saitama’s town planner Tetsuo Takahashi who tells us that he has arrived at a unique way to pitch Saitama to the Toho Company. To make Saitama stand out from the other cities vying for Toho’s attention Takahashi has written a script for a new Godzilla movie that shows how spectacular Godzilla’s destruction of Saitama could be. Sadly Takahashi explains his concern that ‘we haven’t heard back from the Toho Company’. The episode then centres around helping Saitama appear in a Godzilla movie. We are shown Takahashi touring the city with various Saitama civil servants and two actors who played Godzilla in the films. A variety of strategies are discussed to help Saitama’s destruction by Godzilla and the audience is left feeling optimistic about Saitama’s chances to appear in the next Godzilla movie.

This Japanorama episode poses both conventional and unconventional ideas about media tourism. We are told that local governments want the publicity that appearing in a Godzilla film brings. Possibly based on the assumption that connecting Saitama to Godzilla will give them an audience or particular relevancy they otherwise would not have. We can imagine potential economic rewards from tourism or some positive cultural capital through being associated with a popular entertainment icon like Godzilla. Yet there is very little information about the business and branding of media tourism. We don’t see a Toho spokesperson discuss the decisions that go into choosing locations, or council plans to erect Godzilla statues and design tourist information. Instead the episode concentrates on the fun practices and processes of participating in Takahashi’s Godzilla vision. A movie script is written, a Godzilla toy is used to destroy a scale model of Saitama, buildings are discussed in terms of how exactly Godzilla would stomp on them and tear them apart, and people act out their fantasies of being Godzilla by destroying small cardboard models of Saitama’s cityscape.

The audience is left knowing less about the business and marketing of media tourism and more about the fun of being a Godzilla fan and media tourist. The town planner’s script is a type of fan fiction, the Godzilla performances are typical of the alternative identities fan’s adopt through cosplay⁠1, and the use of scale models draws on the simulations and games fans create. The assistance Japanorama offers Saitama’s Godzilla bid seems to be based on the creative forms and collaborative problem-solving of fan-culture. For Saitama the hope is that these fan-type practices are the best way to show how and why Godzilla would destroy Saitama and, more importantly, why Toho should use this location.

The use of appropriation, game-play, mash-ups, and Godzilla performances in Japanorama is an example of the increasing appropriation of what were once marginalised activities of hard-core fans into moments of professional discourse and mainstream entertainment (Green and Jenkins 2009). Normally a town planner wouldn’t write a Godzilla movie script or use a plastic Godzilla toy to explain why his city is interesting and important. But here these approaches are used to solve problems and experiment with how to reimagine a city. What we may be seeing is a variation on converging the practices of production and consumption similar to ‘prosumers’ (Toffler 1980) or ‘produsers’ (Bruns 2008) where the consumer increasingly acts as a creator, distributor or curator of information and resources. In this case Saitama City is producing the very Godzilla story they hope will position them as a city to be used by Toho.

Alternatively the moves Saitama is making towards fan practice may be related to what Jenkins (2007a) refers to as the phenomenon of astroturfing where media industries create fake grassroot campaigns to appeal to particular consumers. While Saitama’s effort to convince fans and Toho of its Godzilla credentials through using fan-like practices is similar to astroturfing, nevertheless it is not attempting to hide its involvement. A stronger parallel may be with the phenomenon of ‘affective economics’ (Jenkins 2006a) which describes the industry enthusiasm to secure the loyal viewers of a cult property. It is based on the hope that over the long term a small cult audience will yield bigger profits than a numerically larger, but less engaged, general audience. In a similar way, the enthusiasm shown in the Japanorama clip to create a Godzilla cult geography in Saitama suggests that there are efforts being made by local councils to tap in to the loyal viewers of cult media to rejuvenate visits to a city. At the same time, however, the lack of any interest from Toho in Saitama’s Godzilla pitch since the broadcast of this episode in 2002 suggests that it has struggled to build a relationship or feedback loop between Toho or Godzilla fans. In this context, Saitama’s efforts to get some ‘Godzillian destruction’ may be a reminder of the challenges that face non-industry players who want to be more directly involved in media production or utilise media properties for their own ends. However, as I will show, appearing in the media through Japanorama may still secure a foothold in Godzilla’s cult geography for Saitama.

Additionally, this has to be understood within Japanorama’s agenda as a television show with a need to tell a particular ‘weird and wonderful Japan’ story to their audience. The show has been edited to best meet these commercial and creative agendas and there is a gentle ‘laughing at’ the town planner’s over-enthusiasm for the destruction and pleasure Godzilla would find in terrorising citizens of Saitama. While this does limit the power Saitama has to control the representation of their Godzilla bid, it does give them an audience and a profile they otherwise would not have. As I will show in this article, this profile is built on the types of fan skills that can be brought into problem-solving (Brabham 2008) and experimenting with notions of place (Longhurst, Bagnall, and Savage 2007; Brooker 2007; Couldry 2007; McBride and Bird 2007).

As I will argue in this article, embracing fan practice can solve some of the challenges found in transforming a city into a pop-culture tourism phenomenon. Rather than Saitama council positioning itself around more conventional top-down strategies to convince fans and the Toho Company, they position themselves as creating a cult-geography by using the bottom-up practices of fans. To explain this we need to look beyond the divide of an active fan community or exploitative industry agenda. The fact that this is a town planner appropriating fan practice reveals a more complex hybrid media ecology at work (Benkler 2006; Jenkins 2006a; Jenkins and Deuze 2008). As my explanation will show there are various stake-holders (fans, government and industry) involved in constructing this cult geography. To explore the interdependent and conflicting factors that facilitate this I will compare Japanorama’s framing of Saitama’s Godzilla bid to the experiences of Western Godzilla fans who have travelled to Japan.

By comparing Japanorama’s portrayal of media tourism practices with the way fans speak of their own Godzilla-tourism this article will connect cult geographies to the discussion around the emergence of a ‘networked information economy’ (Benkler 2006). In Benkler’s consideration of the stakeholders within new media networks, for example, he emphasises the ongoing struggles around competing purposes for the same media space. He suggests that as well as bringing people together networks are also spaces where various complimentary and conflicting agendas such as profit, persuasion, enlightenment and entertainment are played out for ‘benefits to reputation’ (Benkler 2006, 43). Green and Jenkins (2008) refer to Benkler’s argument as defining the emergence of a hybrid media ecology where commercial, amateur, nonprofit, governmental, and educational media producers interact in ever more complex ways, often deploying the same media channels towards very different ends. Within Godzilla’s hybrid media ecology this article will focus on the relationship between two of these stakeholders – local government and fans – and their shared strategies but diverging purposes for creating a Godzilla cult geography.

Before analysing the practices of fans and industry, I wish to briefly outline how the data for this study of Godzilla fandom was collected. The focus of the fan data was the Toho Kingdom community (www.tohokingdom.com), a large website ‘committed to covering all aspects of the film company Toho Eiga [Film]’ and is not affiliated with the Toho Company. With over 500 members, total posts over 90,000 and total topics over 3,000 it provides one of the largest and most extensive portals into Toho films in English. Godzilla, as one of the most famous Toho properties, features extensively throughout the site with various topic focusing exclusively on the significance and continued relevance of Godzilla. I posted a link to a survey on this forum targeting Godzilla fans who had travelled to Japan. The link directed them to a short survey of ten questions which addressed the role Godzilla played in their travels around Japan. In total I received 51 responses. The data was collected during a period of three months in 2010.

From media tourism to cult geography

To return to the earlier quote by Japanorama’s host, ‘Japanese cities crave the publicity that comes with a visit from Godzilla.’ This comment reveals just how much the act of visiting media-locations has become commonplace, and it is now routine for tourists to plan their trips around an interest in popular culture. Fans can visit specific places made famous for them through popular culture and perform typical tourist acts such as photographing themselves in front of these recognisable landmarks or icons, buying merchandise and so on.

While we may be familiar with media tourism clearly the Japanorama clip shows that the practices occurring here go far beyond the mere recognition of a media location. As Hills’ (2002) argues, participating in a cult geography involves more elaborate fan practices.  In Fan Cultures Hills (2002) further refines cult geography as the ‘diegetic and pro-filmic spaces (and ‘real’ spaces associated with cult icons) which cult fans take as the basis for material touristic practices’ (144). This process of fans visiting locations and sites based on their interest in their favourite pop culture text redefines that location’s meaning around their fan interest. The main aim of this article is to show how various fan practices facilitate the production of a Godzilla cult geography.

Previous research in media tourism has discussed the tours and pilgrimages to the locations that were used in popular culture such as the X-Files (Hills 2002), Dracula (Reijnders 2011), Blade Runner (Brooker 2005), Inspector Morse (Reijnders 2009), The Sopranos (Couldry 2007), Sex in the City (McCabe and Akass 2004), and The Lord of the Rings (Tzanelli 2004). While this work has addressed various aspects of the tourist and industry experience of media place, I wish to combine existing fan theory approaches within this field, in particular Hills’ (2002) concept of ‘cult geography,’ with Gee’s (2007a) ‘affinity space’ approach from participatory culture and education studies. Drawing on fan theory and participatory culture research in this way will shed new light on the impact spatial imagination has on the meaning of place and text.

Through these approaches I will show how local government and fan alike use particular fan practices to transform locations into cult geographies. Focusing on the Japanorama episode and TohoKingdom.com fan community, I will map three practices used to create a Godzilla cult geography. Firstly, improvising a cult geography through play. Secondly, generating authenticity through fan practice. And thirdly, combining narrative, place and travel in an ‘affinity space’ (Gee 2007a). These practices will show the interdependent and interrelated production and consumption processes at the core of these practices. It will also show how popular culture can be used to participate in foreign spaces with a powerful sense of purpose.

Creating a cult geography

In discussing Godzilla’s cult geography both Japanorama’s Saitama town planner and the TohoKingdom.com fans emphasise a sense of ‘play’. Recent research into new media literacies (Jenkins et al. 2006; Knobel and Lankshear 2007) has approached the idea of play as a core skill that needs to be further understood. This research has linked play to the serious work youth do addressing issues such as ethics, judgement and identity while playing video games (Gee 2007c), participating in social networks (Lyman et al. 2009) or using google search and wikipedia (Jenkins 2007b). A key value of this play is that it encourages people to engage deeply and fully with complex material and issues (Gee 2007c). This use of play to attain deeper learning was evident in both Takahashi’s performance on Japanorama and the stories Godzilla fans related in their survey responses. Takahashi hopes to create a space for a deeper engagement with Saitama through Godzilla and, as I will show later, fans use various types of play to experiment with their surroundings to solve problems, improvise identities, or understand real world events and histories. However the particular characteristics of how this play is configured and becomes established differs between these two cases.

Figure 2: Jonathan Ross, host of the BBC series ‘Japanorama’

To return briefly to the Japanorama episode, while fan practices are emphasised, playing is also configured as a business undertaking. Takahashi has a responsibility to find a way to make Saitama popular and relevant, this is aligned with a belief in the Godzilla brand association to generate interest around specific locations. Again this is framed as a key motivation of Saitama’s hoped for media tourism, and was emphasised throughout the Japanorama episode by the frequent use of clips showing Godzilla’s destruction of specific landmarks and cities. Takahashi’s positive belief in his ability to use Godzilla to change the public’s perception of Saitama’s brand new city centre is reinforced through three fan practices: appropriation, performance and simulation.

Consider, for example, the attention given to Takahashi’s Godzilla movie script:

So far Godzilla has destroyed most of the famous architecture in Japan. Saitama New Urban Centre is the only place he hasn’t destroyed. We sent our proposal to Toho, Godzilla’s film production company. Apparently a lot of cities are doing the same thing. But what we did was send them an original script to give them a more precise idea – and they found this an unusual approach.

Here we see the value of appropriation through the emphasis given to it as the ‘unusual approach’ Saitama has taken to show that it can be transformed into Godzilla’s cult geography.  Writing the movie script will show Toho that they understand Godzilla and can contribute to the Godzilla community and brand. This approach is underpinned by a belief in the positives of what good fan play is. In particular, the advantages of meaningfully remixing media content (Black 2005; Thomas 2007; Jenkins 2006b). Writing about fan fiction, Jenkins et al (2006) identifies important skills being developed by these writers such as demonstrating knowledge and creativity through ‘an appreciation of the emerging structure’ and ‘potential meanings’ (32) of the original text. The hope for Saitama is that their movie script expresses knowledge of the Godzilla universe and convincingly links their city with the ‘emerging structure’ and ‘potential meanings’ of the films in a creative way. But more than telling a good story it needs to persuade Toho to film there. Fan fiction here becomes one of the council strategies to make their bid stand out and transform Saitama from just another city into a cult geography inhabited by Godzilla.

In addition to appropriation, Saitama’s bid is also explained through the common fan practice of performing Godzilla’s destruction through simulation. YouTube is full of clips where Godzilla fans film themselves smashing poorly constructed cardboard models and cityscapes. In Japanorama Takahashi demonstrates how Godzilla would destroy Saitama by using a plastic toy Godzilla leg on a stick to enact Godzilla’s destructive trail across a large-scale model of the city:

With this stick here I will show you how Godzilla will destroy Saitama City Centre. Godzilla appears from the south and destroys each building. He appears with the Godzilla theme song [Takahashi hums the tune]. Then he finds a new building he turns around and hits the building. The people run around screaming everywhere [Takahashi imitates the sound of people screaming]. He torches two building [Takahashi lets out a roar]. Godzilla loves train stations, he destroys the whole station and the people there are in a big panic. There is a bullet train by his side and he picks up each coach and throws them everywhere. And that is my idea of Godzilla demolishing Saitama New Urban City.

By positioning himself as the knowledgeable Godzilla expert describing Godzilla’s destruction on a detailed map Takahashi performs one of the core practices of cult geography – adopting the identity of key characters and expressing the theme of the series. Hills’ (2002) analysis of X-Files tourists and Couldry’s (2007) analysis of The Sopranos tour highlight the moments where tourist practices and problem-solving reinforce the broader themes in the series, such as The X-Files’ hiddenness or The Sopranos’ tension between the private and public. For Hills (2002),

the manner of this quest [to find the filming locations] replays the ‘hiddenness’ of The X-Files own tropes and secrets: ‘signs’ and ‘informants’ leak out of the text, as if it provided a guide for the cult fans’ creative transposition. This transposition is one of the key aspects of ‘cult geography’ (148)

A similar ‘creative transposition’ can be seen in the Japanorama clip. Takahashi, through his simulations of a Godzilla attack, evokes some of the motifs of military and scientific advisors in the Godzilla series. The films often feature sequences where military advisors and scientists crowd around a map plotting Godzilla’s trail of destruction and interpreting its actions. Alternatively this performance of planning and controlling the movements of Godzilla may also emulate the villain masterminding Godzilla’s assault on a city. Although the importance of adopting the alternative identities and tropes from popular culture have been previously examined, my concern here is how these performances also function as an authenticating strategy for those working in local government or industry.

Figure 3: Japanorama talks with Saitama New Urban Center director Tetsuo Takahashi who shows how Godzilla can smash his new urban development on a model of the city.

Figure 4: The close up is Godzilla’s foot destroying the model train station.


The goal for Saitama is to make their new city centre an authentic location on a tour of Godzilla’s destruction of Japan. While they can’t guarantee a Toho Godzilla film featuring Saitama they can imagine it. They can play, perform and construct models as if the city had been destroyed in a Godzilla film. They can rely upon the generic aspects of the city which already fit the canon of Godzilla’s favourite things to smash (train stations, skyscrapers and new buildings). And tell a story of Saitama within the narrative of Godzilla arriving, destroying buildings, terrorising the population and leaving. In a way the broadcast of these practices on Japanorama already bestows a type of pseudo-authenticity onto Saitama as a Godzilla cult geography. Even without an official Toho film endorsing Saitama it has been filmed and promoted as offering a virtual experience of mapping and co-ordinating Godzilla’s destruction. What is produced is an unofficial tour conducted by Saitama’s town planner, produced by the Japanorama TV program and circulated through broadcast and online media.

Like a fan’s creative transposition when they photograph themselves reenacting scenes in front of landmarks (Hills 2002, 149) Japanorama’s mediation of Saitama’s Godzilla cult geography generates a type of authenticity through the meaning the ‘fan’ acts give to a location. The process of turning a train-station, a skyscraper and other structures of Saitama’s cityscape into the raw materials of a Godzilla film gives them a new symbolic meaning. This is not just a train-station, this is the train-station Godzilla destroys, or the location where people fled from Godzilla. As Hills’ (2002) argues, the fan’s ability to make these locations meaningful through this creative transposition:

allows for a radically different object-relationship in terms of immediacy, embodiment and somatic sensation which can all operate to reinforce cult ‘authenticity’ and its more-or-Iess explicitly sacralised difference. The audience-text relationship is shifted towards the monumentality and groundedness of physical locations (149)

Takahashi’s goal is to transform Saitama from just another big city in Japan into the ‘radically different object-relationship’ of a cult geography. The movie script, re-enactment of Godzilla’s destruction, and walking-tour of Saitama hope to give an authenticity to Saitama’s Godzilla cult geography. Having these performances filmed and circulated through the Japanorama program pushes Saitama into the realms of becoming a media place  – one in which the Japanorama program and Godzilla have shaped our perceptions of it.

However, such positioning towards cult authenticity do not go unchallenged. While Takahashi is defined around his confidence and status, this is undercut somewhat by his own performance during the episode. He hums a different tune to the iconic Godzilla soundtrack during his re-enactment of Godzilla’s destruction, and later is corrected by the Godzilla actors on how Godzilla would destroy large buildings. Raising the question of if Takahashi is really a fan or only interested in Godzilla for the profile it might bring Saitama.

Such questioning of Takahashi’s Godzilla knowledge challenges the hoped-for alliances between Saitama and both Toho and the fan audience. While Takahashi can generate local portals into Godzilla’s cult geography, does he really share a passion for Godzilla films, and is his vision shared by others in Saitama council? These ambiguities between production and consumption are significant. As authors such as Green and Jenkins (2009) point out, while companies are re-evaluating the opportunities offered by fan participation there remains ‘potential conflicts since fan and corporate interests are never perfectly aligned’ (219). Scholars in tourism studies have also been aware of the complexity and ambiguity of authenticity ‘particularly in the context of mediated representations and externally managed tourist experiences’ (Karpovich 2010, 12). For example, media tourism to sites featured in the film Braveheart with its origins in Scotland yet filming in Ireland raises as many questions about heritage and popular culture as the tours appear to celebrate (Aitchison, Macleod, and Shaw 2000). To explore this complexity further this article will now discuss how Godzilla fans define their cult geography practices around both authentic and improvised moments.

Improvising Godzilla’s space

During the Japanorama episode the use of fan practice establishes a clear vision of what it is to inhabit the cult geography of Godzilla’s Japan. In contrast to the slickly produced Japanorama performances, more personal and improvised notions of cult geography are evident in the survey results from the Toho Kingdom community. For these fans travelling to Japan as a Godzilla fan is connected to being a tourist. While this engagement reflects the typical practices of tourism – such as leisure, travel, and souvenir collecting – it is also connected to the motifs and narrative of Godzilla. They are tourists travelling around Japan but they are also adopting Godzilla fan identities to improvise, discover and experiment with their surroundings. In some cases, the fans’ creative transpositions are used to establish their active involvement and participation in the landscape around them.

Godzilla locations

That Saitama could be framed so strongly as a tourist location through the Godzilla text can be understood by considering how Japan’s landscapes – rural, industrial and urban – can become portals into a Godzilla space. To understand the complex relationship between text, fan practice and place I will focus on two ways that fans use creative transposition to move between the Godzilla text and the real geography around them: first, the use of significant and banal locations as portals into the text; and second, the process of using Godzilla’s destruction trope to frame historical events and places.

The locations which Godzilla fans use as portals into the fantasy space of Godzilla includes typical monuments which evoke recognition and awe. Godzilla has destroyed the Diet Building (the seat of Japanese political power) and other important historical structures such as the Osaka Castle, and significant architectural and cultural landmarks such as Ginza’s Wako department store and clock-tower.  These are locations within the Godzilla space which are privileged because of their political, historical and cultural significance  as well as the dramatic action surrounding their destruction in the films. These monuments feature prominently in the advertising for many Godzilla films and  appear in many fans’ recollections of travelling to Japan. As the comment below attests:

My first morning in Japan, travelling south from Tokyo station on shinkansen [bullet train], I was looking at bright, shiny modern skyscrapers and suddenly the Diet building’s cold grey concrete, came into view for a second or two. It was a dreamlike, cinematic moment, making me think Godzilla might come into view next.

As well as the monuments one would expect to evoke media tourism portals Godzilla’s cult geography extends to more banal, everyday locations such as train stations, power lines, oil refineries, hills and even the view out to the ocean. These portals reveal not just how acts of cult geography turn something banal into something spectacular, but also how the fans foreground their role as choreographer of these cult geographies. For example, in the following comment we see how being a Godzilla fan changes a typical tourist act – travelling from one city to another – into the process of generating a Godzilla space.

I think that I had two moments that could be considered Godzilla moments. The first Godzilla moment I had was when I was in the JR Rail going to Fukuoka from Osaka. While taking in the scenery, I noticed the high voltage electrical lines that are shown in many Godzilla films. In my mind I started to play Godzilla‘s theme by Akira Ifukube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vE-JwmDrTNI).

A banal aspect of tourism – looking out the window of a train and noticing the landscape – is here presented as evoking the landscape of a Godzilla film. Again, what is interesting is how banal the portal can be — in this case the many power lines that cover Japan. In contrast to reducing these structures to straight-forward explanations of power supply or barely noticing them beyond their global familiarity, here the Godzilla fan becomes cult geographer by turning these power lines into the power lines often used to battle Godzilla. The ‘Godzilla moment’ is further established by recalling the Godzilla theme music from the composer Akira Ifukuba onto this view of the landscape. Acts that remind us of Takahashi’s similar use of music in his re-enactment of Godzilla’s destruction of Saitama in Japanorama.

The use of Godzilla’s narrative and motifs as scaffolding over the Japanese landscape gives the location a new relevance and excitement. It also casts the cult geographer as an active participant in making this geography. In this way the cult geographer sees themselves as improvising an exciting and stimulating environment far removed from the actual banality of these locations.

A further remixing can be seen in the sampling of discourses combining personal travel diary, fan knowledge, and the language of cinematography in many of the responses. For example, in a later comment the same fan positions themselves as less of a tourist and more a film-director:

As I continued to Fukuoka, I saw a refinery and immediately my thoughts went to naming monsters that have destroyed refineries in Godzilla movies. Finally on the JR Rail I noticed two things that I saw in the 1993 Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla. They were the Fukuoka Tower and how the color of the ocean from the sea of Japan is really a pink color as the sun sets. My other Godzilla moment was when I was on the island of Kikai-Shima. The island itself is nowhere near Tokyo, but I could not help to think of the first image of Godzilla shown on the big screen. Like in the movie there was a hill on the island that I was walking up and my mind had a flash back to the movie. I kind of chuckled and said to myself, wouldn’t it be something if I felt the ground shake and look up to see Godzilla himself roaring.

Figure 5: The poster for GODZILLA VS. SPACEGODZILLA (Kensho Yamashita, 1993) showing the Fukuoka Tower in the middle of the battle.

The Godzilla space exists here in parallel with these locations. The fan improvises a Godzilla geography through specific ‘concrete’ triggers in the environment around them. From monuments (the Diet Building), recognisable architecture (the Fukuoka Tower), banal industrial locations and structures (refineries and power-lines), cityscapes (skyscrapers) and geographical formations (a hill). The combination of witnessing monumental locations, large natural formations, and imposing man-made structures while choreographing their destruction by giant monsters generates the portal into the narrative and practices of the Godzilla text.

Cult geography as an affinity space

Recent research into the impact of new media and online networks on learning provides a useful comparison. In his study, Gee argues that the strength of a learning environment can be best measured in terms of its ‘affinity space’ (Gee 2007b) rather than focusing on the people who inhabit a space and their ‘communities of practice’ (Lave 1996). Gee defines an affinity space as the organisation of an area around a shared purpose and the processes which support or inhibit participation, collaboration and the circulation of expertise and knowledge. His research reveals that spaces are organised around generators (things which give the space content) and platforms (things which give users access to content). For Gee what matters is more than just identifying these two processes, the significance of an affinity space lies in measuring the relative strength of the feedback loop between portals and generators. As Gee (2007a) argues, ‘we want to know whether content organization and interactional organization reflexively shape each other in strong or weak ways, not just whether they do or not’ (96).

While Gee focuses on learning and education, affinity space does offer an insight into some of the key features of a cult geography – particularly in terms of understanding how the meaning of a place can be reordered around its connection to popular culture like Godzilla. To return briefly to Japanorama, at one level the episode builds an affinity space by trying to generate as many Godzilla portals as possible with the aim of influencing Toho’s next Godzilla film. While Saitama is making an aggressive effort to directly contribute to official Godzilla content, affinity spaces also underpin many of the more modest acts of informal learning and sharing performed by the Godzilla fans I surveyed.

As the Godzilla fans travelling to Japan show, experiencing Godzilla’s cult geography is part of a larger social and place based participation. They draw upon various resources that offer support for achieving a successful pilgrimage. Survey respondents mention various websites and travel publications devoted to Godzilla fans travelling to Japan. In addition to online forums like Toho Kingdom, examples included the fan-produced The Monster Movie Fan’s Guide to Japan (Vaquer 2009), tours to Japan organsied by fan clubs such as G-Fan, and the Japanese wikipedia site for Gojira. Through these sites fans have planned their trips to Japan, offered advice to others, and shared information and knowledge. It is exactly this type of participation and engagement that Takahashi and the Saitama council hope to foster for their city through Godzilla.

Experiencing Godzilla’s cult geography not only draws upon these online and published resources, but also the motifs and fictional narrative of the films and the generic and monumental resources of one’s surroundings. When the fan visits the Diet Buildings or sees an oil refinery or power line and transposes a Godzilla narrative over it they draw upon these portals to also generate a Godzilla experience of their own. In the process of transforming a power line into a Godzilla space we can see that there are particular ‘raw ingredients’ which help generate this new, remixed content. Two of these have already been discussed: the use of banal and monumental locations, and adopting alternative identities. Both show that the Godzilla fan travelling in Japan is more than an awed witness they are the choreographer of virtual mass destruction by giant monsters menacing Tokyo.

A third portal which Godzilla fans use to access Godzilla space are the real stories of destruction which have befallen places and buildings featured in the films. Here Godzilla fans present themselves as navigating grand but tragic portals of Japan through Godzilla’s destruction. These creative transpositions include terrifyingly real catastrophes both within Japan and overseas, as the following comment reveals:

I’ve been to NY (assuming you include the 1998 American Godzilla movie in the study). I feel all the locations are important, because it shows that no place is safe or off limits, especially to catastrophe or a rogue force of nature.

The allusion here to the 9/11 terrorist attacks locates Godzilla’s meaning squarely in its indiscriminate destruction of monuments and places where ‘no place is safe or off limits’. This theme suggests one of the core meanings of Godzilla. As Tsutsui (2004) points out, Ishiro Honda, who directed the first Godzilla movie in 1954,  approached ‘Godzilla as a means of “making radiation visible,” of giving tangible form to unspoken fears of the Bomb, nuclear testing, and environmental degradation’ (33). Within the survey results members of the Toho Kingdom community repeated Honda’s reading of Godzilla as a cautionary tale of ‘unspoken fears’. For example, one respondent echoed this as the reason Godzilla destroys cities: ‘Godzilla destroyed these buildings because he is furious at mankind’s use of atomic weapons. He is an instrument of nature’s wrath and will continuously destroy Tokyo’.

Fans draw upon Godzilla as a ‘tangible form to unspoken fears’ as they interpret and construct a parallel story of real-world destruction through their travel to Godzilla locations. The convergence of places and their destruction, both fictional and real, asserts the fan’s engagement with some of the feelings of fear and vulnerability that lie in the intersection between the text and their surroundings. For example, the convergence of history, narrative and place is seen in the recent fan-produced travel guide, The monster movie fan’s guide to Japan (Vaquer 2009). In the following entry for Ginza and Hibiya Park we see the shift from specific locations in Tokyo’s Ginza area to the Godzilla narrative and then to the destruction visited upon these locations during WWII.

Ginza is Tokyo’s upscale shopping district. It first appeared in Godzilla (1954) as a detailed minature. The craftsmen at Toho faithfully recreated Ginza well enough to give viewers an idea on how the district looked in 1954. During Godzilla’s nighttime rampage in Tokyo, the clock atop the Wako Department store at Ginza Crossing gonged the hour and thus annoyed the giant beast. Godzilla then proceeded to tear down the clock and the department store along with it. He also torches the Matsuzakaya Department Store, one of Tokyo’s priciest retailers. Across the street from the Wako Building, is the Mitsukoshi department store. The Mitsukoshi was one of the first Western-style department stores in Japan. It sustained heavy bomb damage in World War II, but has been rebuilt and is still a thriving department store. (Vaquer 2009, 28) In this example Godzilla’s presence in Tokyo is a destructive force: it commits ‘nighttime rampage’ on Tokyo, ‘tear(s) down the clock’ and ‘torches the Matsuzakaya department store’.  For Vaquer, the destruction of Ginza by Godzilla replicates the wartime destruction of Ginza by Allied bombers.

Like the process of ‘narrative leakage’ described by Hills (2002), one of the key practices in the cult geography is the move from the fictional narrative space to one’s surroundings through the process of meaningfully remixing both.


The analysis presented in this article has explored the strategies used by fans, local government and media to transform the environment around them. The focus on Saitama’s Godzilla bid and TohoKindom.com’s fans has revealed a number of similar strategies used to remix Godzilla into one’s surroundings. These strategies could be broadly labeled as ‘fan practices’ including appropriation, performance and simulation. These practices also impart an authenticity onto these locations through meaningfully reordering them as spaces of Godzilla affiliation. In many of these examples Godzilla was also used as scaffolding for other purposes – such as drawing more attention to Saitama, or reflecting on the real historical destruction of those locations.

Differences between Japanorama and TohoKingdom also empahasise the conflicting purposes that exist between the stakeholders within this hybrid media ecology. On one hand Saitama is hoping to exploit a potential synergy between their new city centre and Godzilla’s destruction of significant landmarks. Whereas for Godzilla fans they seek to improvise a Godzilla experiences when and where they want to. Convergence cultures, as Jenkins (2006a) has argued, change the way media are circulated and engaged with and have  meant we need to move beyond power relations based on a weak or strong audience/producer divide.

Issues of power still remain, but need to be addressed from multiple perspectives and sympathetic to alternative norms. For example, while Saitama and Japanorama use fan practices, fans are absent from the episode. We are only provided with the opinions of professionals. In a way this keeps the actual labour fans have done to re-circulate, comment on, and contribute to popular culture like Godzilla largely invisible. While there remain important concerns around the diverging agendas of various stakeholders, the fan practice ‘tool kit’ outlined here is evidence of the forms of participation which are being learned and appropriated between stakeholders. By valuing the types of practices of fans and trying to appear loyal to the spirit and enjoyment of Godzilla, Saitama may still appeal to the hard-core Godzilla fan audience. Even without the direct involvement of the Toho company Saitama may yet become a cult geography.



1 A Japanese term that has been adopted by fans globally to refer to dressing up as a character from popular culture.


Japanorama episode reference

Japanorama. Horror. Season 1, Episode 6. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Hotsauce TV, 1 June 2002.


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Craig Norris is a lecturer in Journalism, Media and Communications in the School of English, Journalism & European Languages at the University of Tasmania, Australia. His research in media studies focuses on popular culture, audiences and fandom. He has published articles in the area of global media and the dissemination of Japanese popular-culture (particularly anime, manga, video games and cosplay). His current research explores the relationship between media and place through global media tourism and fan pilgrimages to media locations. Norris teaches courses on youth media, media flows and spaces, as well as honours level seminars in media theory and methods.

“Fear is a Place”: The Asylum as Transgressive Haunted House in Brad Anderson’s Session 9 – Jessica Balanzategui


Session 9 (Brad Anderson, 2001) features a gothic, abandoned mental asylum, a decaying relic of the past whose uncanny power is reinforced through the extra-diegetic fact that the Danvers Asylum of the film was a real abandoned asylum in Boston until its demolition in 2006.  In the decaying space of the Danvers Asylum the supernatural and the unconscious realms are united through the (invisible) figure of Simon who, as the malignant genius loci of the asylum, assumes a position of duality between supernatural and psychological realms, internal and external worlds. This essay examines how Session 9 binds the uncanny space of the abandoned asylum to the construction of madness and the eerie return of the repressed.

Session 9 (Brad Anderson, 2001)

The figure of the mental asylum looms as an unsavoury cultural emblem of oppressive and sometimes violent confinement, typified by the semi-legendary institution, Bedlam. Asylums metonymise the sinister power of madness, which is frequently represented in popular culture as an inherently uncanny and abject condition. The human potentiality for madness is a dark shadow lurking in the social unconscious, the acknowledgement of which is repressed in the quest to present a rational and coherent identity. This domain of repressed social otherness — represented by madness and symbolised by the asylum — often re-emerges in dramatic fashion in the horror film. As J.P. Telotte suggests, the horror genre typically expresses fears that “the otherness in ourselves lurks just beneath the normal human veneer and threatens to resurface some day with all its horrors” (1985, 34). This notion evokes Freud’s concept of the uncanny, a cognitive dissonance induced by the re-emergence of something once familiar to conscious thought that has been estranged through repression.

Madness represents a central source of the uncanny; Freud asserts that “the layman sees [in madness] a manifestation of forces that he did not suspect in a fellow human being, but whose stirrings he can dimly perceive in remote corners of his own being” (2003, 150). Julia Kristeva’s (1982) theorisation of the abject can be used in tandem with Freud’s notion of the uncanny to elucidate the symbolic power of madness. Abjection involves the cognitive exclusion of elements that threaten or subvert conceptions of the self as a unified, distinct entity. It details the nightmarish emergence of these excluded thoughts, feelings or images, both personally and culturally.  More specifically, the abject assists in providing a ‘visual’ evocation of the uncanny, in that the abject does not “respect borders, positions or rules”, it is an “in-between  …  which disturbs identity, system and order” (Kristeva, 4). Ultimately, the spectacle of madness in others is an inherently uncanny and abject experience which is frequently exploited in horror cinema, especially those films that centralise an asylum as a setting. The construction of the asylum in many horror films both centralises and fetishises repression and the chaotic power of the unconscious, implanting the abject and uncanny condition of madness into the space of the asylum.

These “asylum horror films” constitute a long-standing and persistent subgenre of horror film; one of the earliest horror films, the German Expressionist The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920), is a formative representation of the subgenre. Recent incarnations include Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010) and John Carpenter’s The Ward (2010). The focus of this essay is Brad Anderson’s Session 9 (2001) which centres on the abandoned Danvers Asylum — an asylum that actually existed in Boston until its demolition in 2006 to make way for an apartment complex. The Danvers State Asylum opened in 1878 and officially closed down for the final time in 1992, standing abandoned for over ten years (John Gray, 2009, n.p.). In its abandoned, decaying form the asylum represents a dark symbol and metonym of the violently oppressive past of mental illness treatment. This is highlighted by the various decaying implements of ‘treatment’ and oppression which linger in the hospital, and by the allusions to histories of treatment and de-institutionalisation of the mentally ill in the dialogue[1]. Through an uncanny fetishisation of its past, the abandoned asylum stands as a variation of the haunted or, to use Robin Wood’s broader term, “terrible house” figure (1985, 188). The contemporary symbol of the haunted house is a precise reflection of the uncanny, dramatising the unhomely qualities central to the German unheimlich. Like a haunted or terrible house, the abandoned asylum in Session 9 is inhabited by a ghostly presence named “Simon”, which exists as the malignant genius loci of the gothic building. The assimilating of the asylum with the haunted house is also underscored by the ways in which Session 9 echoes the qualities of another paradigmatic “terrible house” film, The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)[2].

In Session 9, Anderson centralises sound in his construction of madness and the uncanny. The sounds of the asylum, in particular the sinister voice of Simon, evoke the experience of auditory hallucination. Simon’s disembodied voice represents what Michel Chion (1994) has termed an “acousmetre”: a “character whose relationship to the screen involves a specific kind of ambiguity and oscillation” (129). This oscillation, fostered from the character’s visual absence, enforces Simon’s transgressive existence between supernatural and psychological realms. In addition his status as an acousmetre ensures that the spectator shares in the sensory and mental disorientation of delusion. Through the disorientating duality embedded in the soundscape, the entire figure of the abandoned asylum comes to represent the mythical space of madness, repression and the unconscious.

Unlike many asylum horror films, such as the aforementioned Shutter Island, the diegetic world of Session 9 is not entirely contained within the confined space of the asylum. Instead, the protagonist, Gordon (Peter Mullan), is a functioning member of society who has come with a team of workmates to clear asbestos from its decaying walls. Gordon and his colleagues appear to be everyday working men, concerned with getting their work finished on time, acquiring enough money to care for their families, and fantasising about being prosperous and successful members of society. Gordon struggles with the pressure of family life, having just become a father. On arriving at the abandoned asylum to start working on the hazardous asbestos, he is spoken to by a mysterious voice (later identified as “Simon”). Simon, who is never visually represented, is not given clear borders of definition — he seems to exist as a disembodied incarnation of the malignant genius loci of the abandoned asylum, and also as an agent of repressed memories and thoughts. Simon has the power to vanquish the controlling forces of the ego, which leads to the disastrous release of Gordon’s repressed aggressive drives. The audience is forced to follow Gordon’s perception of events so that the spectator, like Gordon himself, is unaware of the extent of his actions until the final scene. Thus, the spectator shares Gordon’s destabilising experience of madness and the uncanny return of the repressed. While the audience becomes aware of Gordon’s ongoing cycle of violence and repression towards the end of the film, it seems that Gordon does not. In the final scene he occupies the room of a former inmate of the asylum, Mary Hobbes (Jurian Hughes), and is found speaking to his dead wife on a phone with no battery in it — Gordon has become a ‘patient’ in the uncanny space of the abandoned asylum.

The decaying implements which litter the abandoned asylum serve as silent but potent spectres of oppressive authority. A decrepit wheelchair sitting in a hall of the asylum becomes one of Session 9’s recurring images: the film opens with an inverted shot of this lone wheelchair. Through being framed upside-down the image is immediately imbued with a jarring, uncanny quality which underscores the way in which perception imposes meaning upon visual stimuli. The camera slowly rotates upright, accompanied by the ever increasing sound of dripping water, suggesting that something intangible has been roused within the asylums mouldering walls. This opening image introduces the mysterious genius loci of the abandoned building, as it is upon Gordon’s sighting of this wheelchair that Simon’s voice first emerges. Thus, the lingering power of these decaying implements of oppression is foregrounded from the opening shot of the film.

Figure 1: The opening image of the sinister wheelchair.

In addition to the eerie wheelchair, the asylum’s hydro-baths remain decayed but intact, still filled with murky water. The guide (Paul Guifoyle) explains that these were used to “soak the nut-job in water”, an act which evokes Michel Foucault’s discussion of the various “water therapies” that have existed throughout history as treatment for madness, which he argues functioned as a symbolic “christening” into the world of reason (2001, 164). The guide further explains that “if that didn’t work, [patients] were given a pre-frontal lobotomy”, which was “perfected at Danvers”. The lobotomy is another of the film’s recurring motifs, symbolising the ultimate form of oppression which reduces the human to a ‘zombie’ robbed of his conscious will, similar to somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The image of the empty wheelchair condenses these anxieties, standing in for a human who — through madness, oppression and ultimately death — is no longer ‘fully’ present, yet whose uncanny affects are still sensed; thus signifying an abject non-presence.  As well as the wheelchair and hydro-baths, the camera lingers on an electro-shock machine attached to a gurney and strait-jacket.

All these implements, like the overbearing asylum itself, compose a sordid spectacle of the oppressive past, symbols of humanity’s attempts to control the powerfully uncanny otherness of madness. The decaying asylum and its implements are ultimately a representation of repression on a cultural scale. Standing cordoned off from the present ‘normal’, functioning society of Danvers, protected by security guards and gates and hidden by forests on the outskirts of the city, the asylum stands as a concealed reminder of a long-stretching history of violent treatment of mental illness. The asylum’s metonymic position as an uncanny, culturally repressed space which threatens to nightmarishly re-emerge and intrude upon the present is further underscored by recurring aerial pans over the asylum’s sharp and sprawling rooves and steeples, in which the roads and houses of Danvers can be seen beyond the asylum’s menacingly jagged topography.

Figure 2: Danvers Asylum and the town beyond its bounds.


This menacing and decaying asylum is akin to the haunted or “terrible house” horror topos —a horrific, engulfing space, which represents the “dead weight of the past crushing the life of the younger generation, the future” (Wood, 188). The overbearing asylum with its rusted, decaying exterior provides a powerful visual evocation of this “dead weight of the past”.  The ambience of decay is often echoed in the filtering of rust-hued lighting throughout the mise-en-scene. The film fetishises a horrific past by dramatising the symbolic link between cultural and personal repression, utilising the asylum itself as a symbol of the unyielding power of the repressed past and unconscious drives. As Carlo Cavagna points out, in Session 9 “the past comments on the present, colouring the atmosphere and everything that transpires” (2001, n.p.).  This effect can be seen in the way in which the cells of past patients, known in the fiction of the film as “seclusions”, are presented.  The pictures and cut-outs that patients have stuck to the walls of their rooms remain intact, albeit in the faded, time-tainted form that characterises the asylum itself. Gordon becomes transfixed by the images on the walls of these seclusions, and the spectator follows his slowly panning gaze as he scrutinises them.

The pastiche of images and quotes on the wall comment on and hint at the future trajectory of Gordon and his workmates. One clip-out reads “Suddenly it’s going to dawn on you”, foreshadowing both Gordon and the audience’s sudden revelation at the film’s climax that Gordon himself is the violent monster of the film. This clip-out also prefigures the game the film plays with its audience, a device common to asylum horror films, in which the audience’s alliance with the mad protagonist’s point of view results in a sudden jolt at the climax when the ‘real’ framing story — and what has been repressed by the central character — is revealed. That this clip-out is accompanied by an image of a smiling mother and child is a further taunt to both Gordon and the audience, as the realisation that occurs at the film’s denouement involves the gruesome undermining of the myth of blissful motherhood and family life.

The other cut-outs on the wall play a similar role in using the sordid spectacle of the past to comment on the future and the present. For instance, one tattered clipping reads, “A man of peace, an act of violence”, a prediction and comment upon Gordon’s soon to be committed “act of violence”. A black and white image of five men lying in coffins presages Gordon’s murderous violence against his five workmates within the asylum’s walls. Thus, these creepy relics of the asylum’s past exude an uncanny yet powerful relationship with the present, just as Gordon’s repressed memories influence his present actions and perception. Through these images, there is an uncanny repetition embedded in the film’s narrative and imagery. The first clipping on the wall that is made clearly visible reads, “No one will leave feeling neutral”. Like the ambiguous voice of Simon himself, this clip-out reads like a menacing threat from the genius loci of the asylum, implying that the characters (and the audience) have entered an uncanny domain from which there can be no return to a life bound by the normal order.

Figure 3: The asylum’s past threatens to engulf Gordon in the “seclusion” room.

It is revealed to the audience at the close of the film that Gordon has constructed his own “seclusion”, which symbolically acts as psychological seclusion from truth and his repressed memories. He has occupied the room of former patient Mary Hobbes, sticking photos of his own family all over the walls of the cell, making himself a part of this “terrible house” which represents a sordid, culturally repressed past. As S.S. Prawer argues of horror film:

The cinematic tale of terror has played on apprehensions connected with the mystery of time as well as space. It likes to remind the viewer of the ‘I have been here before’ feeling, a feeling which we all know and which powerfully  suggests that the future is something determined, something that in a way is already here, already in the present. (1980, 79)

This effect replicates déjà vu, one of Freud’s central examples of the uncanny. The abandoned asylum becomes not just a symbol of the specific past of mental illness treatment, but of a disorientating and uncanny intrusion of the past in general upon the present. This inescapable intrusion of the past constructs a world in which “the past piles up”, ensuring that the future and present are crushed “by the ever increasing weight of the past” (Foucault, 1987, 85). The audio tapes which hold the psychological sessions of former patient, Mary Hobbes, underscore the ever mounting intrusion of the past upon the present throughout the film. Initially, these tapes exist as a mere relic of the past, as Mike (Stephen Gevedon) listens to them momentarily before turning them off and resuming his work. But as the film progresses, the tapes continue to play as Mike leaves the room — even after his death — eventually invading, merging with, and overtaking the diegetic sound. In fact the playing of these tapes is overlaid upon the entire climax of the film, as it is Simon’s voice, as recorded on Mary’s Session Tapes, that concludes the film, leaving the viewer trapped with Gordon inside the asylum’s past. This echoes Jack Torrance’s (Jack Nicholson) own merging with the past of the “terrible house” of The Shining, in which the final shot shows Jack’s face in one of the black and white photos which adorn the hotel’s walls.

As is common to the asylum horror film, the viewer does not become entirely aware of the nature or content of Gordon’s repression until the end of the film, sharing his confused perception of events. However unlike in films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Shutter Island the viewer is not entirely trapped inside Gordon’s delusional world, as the cinema audience is offered observations on Gordon through the voices of other characters. Early in the film, Hank (Josh Lucas) remarks that “Gordo is the Zen-master of calm, I’ve never seen old Gordo lose it”. The fact that Gordon is established as so in control of his repressed drives renders Gordon’s susceptibility to Simon’s demands more unexpected and confronting. As the film progresses, Gordon’s ‘self-control’ appears to entirely erode. He is often shown wandering around the grounds of the asylum with a vacant facial expression, as though he is sleepwalking or a zombie. His pronounced limp further symbolises his deteriorating stability, while echoing the limping gait of Jack in The Shining. The loss of control of the rational self is further likened to sleepwalking at the end of the film, as Gordon is shown attacking Hank with a blank expression and closed eyes. Furthermore, in the final scenes an imaginary incarnation of Gordon’s best friend, Phil (David Caruso), tells him continuously to “wake up” — to regain control of his self and consciously acknowledge his repressed memories.

Gordon’s ‘sleepwalking’ and his blind following of Simon’s instructions also render him analogous to the somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. As Prawer says of Cesare “he is a human being robbed of an essential part of his humanity: his consciousness and his will. He is a human dreamer forced, by a malevolent agency, to lose himself in his dream” (180). These aspects become a large component of Gordon’s emergence as an uncanny figure, a source of fear for the viewer. At certain moments throughout the film, his limbs seem to move independently of his body, as if he is a puppet being controlled by a malicious puppet-master. In one scene at the climax of the film, Gordon’s blood-covered hand slowly emerges from out of shot and smears blood across his eye. It is as if Gordon is not in control of his own limbs, as if Simon (whose laughter accompanies the shot) is confronting Gordon with the monstrous violence of his actions. This fear of the human as an agent of chaos and violence when robbed of his consciousness emerges as a central purveyor of the uncanny in a number of horror subgenres, particularly the zombie and possession film[3]. As well as revealing anxieties about the subversive danger of repressed drives, the depiction of Gordon as a puppet-like sleepwalker encodes abject transgressions of the borders of humanity — like Cesare, Gordon comes to exist in a space of hesitation and duality between living and dead, subject and object.

As the ambiguous entity which possesses both Mary and Gordon is named Simon, madness is characterised in the film as a sinister game of Simon Says, in which the power of the malignant Simon is absolute when cracks in the unity of the rational self appear in those he possesses. As Simon tells the doctor on Mary’s Session Tapes, “I live in the weak and the wounded”. Simon seems to assume control when Gordon and Mary experience moments of acute physical pain; their violence erupts after Simon’s voice is heard saying, “Do it, do it now.” Simon crystallises the ambiguous power which underlies many asylum horror films: an uncanny force that blurs subject and object boundaries, and which transgresses the borders between the psychological and the supernatural. When the doctor on Mary’s Session Tapes asks who he is, Simon simply replies, “You know who I am”, words he has also said to Gordon in one of the film’s early scenes. Thus, Simon becomes associated with a dark and primal force inherent to human experience — his contradictory (non)presence fetishises the unknowable depths of the unconscious. Simon’s transgression of boundaries evokes a realisation that “the deepest level of the psyche  …  is the point at which we enter a completely different reality operating outside the conventional laws of the known world” (Victoria Nelson, 2004, 114). Through the juxtaposition of his disembodied voice with the decaying images of the asylum, Simon becomes the sinister soul of the abandoned asylum, and the asylum itself becomes a symbol of the uncanny.

Sound plays a central role in representing the uncanny genius loci of the abandoned Danvers State Asylum. Diegetic sound such as birds chirping and the ticking of car indicators are electronically distorted to render the film’s soundscape uncanny and destabilising, encoding a blurring of boundaries between subject and object, diegetic and non-diegetic sound, so that the spectator experiences mental and sensory disorientation. The uncanny distortion of supposedly ‘normal’ diegetic sound merges with the non-diegetic soundtrack, usually made up of a sparse chromatic piano line and a long electronic monotone.  This ambiguity of sound categories forces the viewer to share Gordon’s destabilising perceptions, as supposed ‘reality’ is increasingly rendered uncanny and the borders of the filmic real and Gordon’s interior perceptions become inseparable.  As Foucault explains, madness is defined by an inability to see beyond the limits of selfhood, that “in his delusive attachment to himself, man generates his madness like a mirage” (1987, 23).

Through a soundscape which blurs the boundaries of what is diegetic and non-diegetic, the Danvers Asylum comes to represent the disorientating mirage of madness for the spectator as well as Gordon. The film opens with a flurry of distorted, high pitched sounds which merge a number of the film’s sound motifs: bird sounds, vague electronic noise and dripping water. These sounds give way to the cavernous electronic monotone which can be heard often throughout the film, a sound imprinted upon the abandoned walls, halls and wheelchair of the decaying asylum, accompanied by dripping water. The opening shot abruptly cuts to Gordon waiting in his car, bombarded by the electronic static and disembodied sounds of the car radio. The radio noise closely resembles the curious sounds which opened the film; the distinctly unnatural and unfamiliar sounds of the opening have been jarringly assimilated with noises which should be comfortingly familiar. Thus for the audience, the space of the abandoned asylum has already rendered uncanny the everyday sounds outside of the asylum’s gates. This uncanniness is connected in particular to Gordon himself, as the wheelchair shot promptly cuts to a close-up of the back of his head. Eventually, among the convoluted sounds of the car radio, another character’s voice, Phil’s, is heard out of shot. Phil’s voice is initially almost indistinguishable from the sounds of the radio. In addition, because Phil is out of shot and there is instead a close-up on Gordon’s face, it is as if Phil’s voice exists inside Gordon’s mind. Gordon’s ear takes up the centre of the shot, and the camera slowly tracks around his ear to a profile shot of his face. The centralising of the ear in the shot further underscores the importance of interpreting and distinguishing these convoluted auditory sensations.

This problematising of perceiving and filtering the auditory world foreshadows the uncanny emergence of Simon.  Simon exists as what Chion calls an “acousmetre”, a term coined by Chion to describe a voice with no visually represented source which is “neither inside nor outside the image” (129). Chion elaborates that “it is not inside, because the image of the voice’s source … is not included. Nor is it outside since it is not clearly positioned offscreen in an imaginary ‘wing’ …  and it is implicated in the action” (129). The acousmetre assumes a position of hesitation between offscreen and onscreen which mirrors Simon’s dual existence between the internal and external, psychological and supernatural worlds. Simon’s position as an acousmetre evokes an experience of auditory hallucination for the spectator. Foucault points out that those experiencing an auditory hallucination “hear voices in mythical space  …  in which axes of reference are fluid and mobile: they hear next to them, around them, within them, the voices of persecutors, which at the same time, they situate beyond the walls, beyond the city, beyond all frontiers” (55).

For both Gordon and the audience, the voice of Simon does indeed seem to arise from some sinister “mythical space”. As Gordon is transfixed by the wheelchair, a sourceless, flickering electronic sound gradually crescendos, overtaking the sounds of dripping water. As the sound grows, Gordon’s face becomes shrouded in shadow, until finally a disembodied voice — rendered particularly uncanny by its vaguely lingering electronic quality — emerges from the metallic drone, and remarks “Hello Gordon”. The sound does not seem to arise from any particular source; there are no visual cues connecting the sound with any specific area or object. This menacing auditory invasion, accompanied by the still images of the decaying asylum, combine to emit an uncanny and disorientating ambience which evokes the mythical space of madness. The mysterious locale of the abandoned asylum has produced an uncanny voice that seems to emanate from some shadowy dimension of the asylum itself, which, as in the auditory hallucination, neither Gordon nor the audience can pin down to a specific person, entity or space. This untraceable voice signifies an incarnation of the intangible “Elsewhere” outlined by Gilles Deleuze — a “disturbing presence … a more radical Elsewhere, outside homogenous space and time” (2005, 18).

Chion asserts that the acousmetre “draws its very force from the opposition and the way it transgresses [boundaries of onscreen and offscreen]” (131). This powerful transgression of coherent borders is also evident in the connections which arise between the dead Mary Hobbes’s “dissociative personality disorder” and Gordon’s own experience of madness, and the way in which these connections are structured and represented. Throughout much of the film,  “Simon” is merely the name of Mary Hobbes’ mysterious, unheard third “alternate personality”, the mention of which provokes extreme fear, anger or avoidance responses from Mary’s other personalities. He finally reveals himself on the Session Tapes at the climax of the film, a time when all pretence of solidarity is finally lost among the work-crew. Because the audience is already familiar with this voice, when it finally emerges on the Session Tape under the guise of Simon it is immediately imbued with a further layer of uncanniness. The nameless, ambiguous voice that both the audience and Gordon have been struggling to position within the context of the Danvers Asylum and Gordon’s descent into madness is now associated with a dead patient who was once confined at the asylum.

The voice of Simon within Mary Hobbes provides an example of what Peter Hutchings describes as “monstrous ventriloquism” (2004, 132), as the deep, metallic voice of Simon clearly does not match the photos of the mousy, middle-aged woman, Mary Hobbes. This disconcerting mismatching of the sound to its source denotes that Mary’s mental illness “is not bound by the natural order” (Hutchings, 132) but is an abject transgression of femininity and identity. This abject affect is heightened for the viewer by the fact that the performer who voiced Simon is not listed in the film’s credits, suggesting (but not confirming) that female actress Jurian Hughes did in fact produce this deep, menacing timbre. The appearance of Simon in Mary Hobbes’s Session Tapes complicates his relation to Gordon even more, further blurring boundaries between self and other, and the internal and the external world. Vague connections between the deceased Mary Hobbes and Gordon are suggested throughout the film: in one scene Gordon sits above the broken headstone of Mary Hobbes’s grave (marked merely by a patient number); in another, the wheelchair that transfixes him on arriving at the asylum sits outside the door of Mary Hobbes’s cell; and finally, during a climactic scene, an image of Mary’s face is overlaid on a close-up of Gordon’s own visage[4]. Thus, it becomes particularly difficult for the audience to situate Simon as either an entirely supernatural or psychological force. The asylum comes to represent an abject space between supernatural and psychological realms, thus evoking Tzvetan Todorov’s theory of ontological hesitation as central to the subject’s experience of the uncanny in acts of readership or (in this case) spectatorship (1975, 46).  The disorientation is emphasised by Simon’s acousmatic qualities. The spectator is thus placed in a disorientating position of hesitation, and the asylum houses, and ultimately represents, transgressive forces that breach the boundaries between subject and object, supernatural and psychological, and onscreen and offscreen.

Figure 4: Gordon, Mary, Simon or something in-between? An abject transgression of the borders selfhood.

Ultimately in Session 9, the figure of the abandoned, decaying asylum is utilised as a metonym for both personal and collective repression. The rust-coloured, corroded building is presented as a menacing spectre of the past invading the normality of the present. The past itself becomes an intrusive and eerie figure in Session 9, represented in solid form by the asylum but also in the stories of repressed pasts and memories central to the narrative. Before its destruction in 2006, the ‘real’ abandoned Danvers Asylum was a source of fascination and fear among the community of Danvers. Prior to its demolition, Danvers local Michael Puffer explains that “the massive red-brick gothic landmark that stands atop Hathorne Hill has been given many names during the past 129 years” and that “[t]hese names stand as evidence of the special place the building, and Danvers State Hospital, holds in the minds and mythology of the people of Danvers, the North Shore and beyond” (2003, n.p.). Director Brad Anderson has revealed that he was driven to make Session 9 because of the eerie lure of the abandoned asylum building, which he saw often while living in Boston. The asbestos which lingers in the walls of the asylum in the film invokes the powerful, corruptive impact of the asylum’s past upon the present. As Gordon’s work-mate Hank explains early in the film, “already a piece of [asbestos] might have got into your lungs; it incubates in your lungs and tissue … like a ticking time-bomb”. The asbestos which imperceptibly drifts throughout the asylum in Session 9 metaphorises the abandoned asylum’s ongoing powers of corruption and infectious taint.  As the promotional tagline for Session 9 suggests, “Fear is a place”: the abandoned asylum literalises the intangible depths of the unconscious, the blurred boundaries of time and space, and figures a realm in which the uncanny reigns.


[1]Discussions about the history of the asylum litter the film, including therapy methods and the period of de-institutionalisation stretching from the 1960s to the early ’90s. The guide proclaims that “nearly all these places were closed down in the ’80s, you know, budget-cuts – feds called it de-institutionalisation.” Hank adds, “the loonies are outside in the real world and we have the keys to the loony bin, boys”, delineating the asylum itself as the domain of otherness.

[2] Though technically a hotel, The Overlook functions as a large-scale “terrible house” in The Shining, adapting and embellishing haunted house tropes.

[3] Simon, like the demon in seminal possession film The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) “is an expression of the fear that beneath the self we present to others are forces that can erupt to obliterate every vestige of self-control and personal identity” (Noel Carroll, 1981, 18). As in possession and zombie films, Simon’s power over Gordon fetishises and dramatises a fear that lurking beneath the human veneer is a dangerous otherness which may one day disastrously erupt. The Exorcist (while not an asylum horror film) also features a scene in a ‘house of horror’ asylum, and represents psychiatric tools of treatment as sinisterly invasive.

[4] This effect echoes the final shot in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), in which the skull of Norman’s mother is overlaid upon a close-up of Norman’s face. Both shots conflate ‘madness’ with an abject blurring of boundaries between the dead and the living, male and female, supernatural and psychological.




 Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, The. Dir. Robert Wiene. Decla-Bioscop AG, 1920.

Exorcist, The. Dir. William Friedkin. Hoya Productions, 1973.

Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Paramount Pictures, 1960.

Session 9. Dir. Brad Anderson. USA Films, 2001.

Shining, The. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1980.

Shutter Island. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Paramount Pictures, 2010.

Ward, The. Dir. John Carpenter. FilmNation Entertainment, 2010

Works Cited

Carroll, Noel. “Nightmare and the Horror Film: The Symbolic Biology of Fantastic Beings.” Film Quarterly 34.3 (1981): 16-25.

Cavagna, Carlo. “Session 9”. Aboutfilm. August, 2001. 12 July, 2010. <http://www.aboutfilm.com/movies/s/session9.htm>

Chion, Michel. Audio-vision: Sound on Screen. Ed and translated by Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. London: Continuum, 2005.

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization. Trans. David Cooper. Great Britain: Routledge Classics, 2001.

—. Mental Illness and Psychology. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. Trans. David McLintock. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Gray, John. “Chronicles: Constructing a New Danvers.” The Danvers State Asylum. 2009.   30 Sep. 2010 <http://www.danversstateinsaneasylum.com/2006.html>

Hutchings, Peter. The Horror Film. Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2004.

Kristeva, Julia. The Powers of Horror. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Nelson, Victoria. The Secret Life of Puppets. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Prawer, S.S. Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Puffer, Michael. “The lore, and lure, of the Danvers State Hospital”. Danvers Herald.October 2003. Accessed through the Haunted Salem Website, 12 July 2010. <http://www.hauntedsalem.com/news/oct03-dh-danversstate.htm>

Telotte, J.P. “Faith and Idolatry in the Horror Film.” Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant and Christopher Sharret. London: Scarecrow Press, 1985. 20-35.

Todorov, Tzvetzan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to Literary Genre. Trans. Richard Howard. Cleveland: Case Western University Press, 1975.

Wood, Robin. “An Introduction to the American Horror Film.” Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant and Christopher Sharret. London: Scarecrow Press, 1985. 164-200.


Jessica Balanzategui is a doctoral candidate in the department of Screen Studies at The University of Melbourne. She is currently working on her dissertation, which explores the construction of uncanny child characters in a recent assemblage of transnational horror films originating from America, Spain and Japan.