Understanding the Erotic: Analyzing Power and Eroticism Using Janie’s Janie

Following this week’s screening, I left feeling rather perplexed as to how the readings and the films pieced together.  After rereading Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider and re-watching the selected films, however, I found some clarity, which was centered almost entirely around Lorde’s margarine metaphor.  Lorde’s metaphor, which describes the way in which “a tiny, intense pellet of yellow coloring” is mixed with “uncolored margarine” to create the classic butter-like spread that many of us have used at one point or another, captures both the essence of eroticism that she is writing about in her short essay as well as the essence and character of the experimental films that we viewed in our screening this past Monday.   Lorde’s metaphor, in this manner, provided a critical intellectual framework that ultimately allowed me to transpose my understanding of power, the erotic, and its effects on women to the films that we screened.  In all five films, the women appear to have harnessed Lorde’s erotic, which ultimately gave each woman a new found inspiration and empowerment in their respective lives or endeavors.  Additionally, these women were able to use this newfound sense of eroticism to surpass what Lorde describes as “the false notion that there is only a limited and particular amount of freedom that must be divided up between us.”  In this manner they used their empowered outlook as a catalyst for life improvement, which involved the conscious decision not to “settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.”  The connection that I perceived between power, the erotic, and the empowerment that these two phenomenon create is especially evident in the film Janie’s Janie.

In the 25-minute documentary style film Janie’s Janie, audiences are subjected to an unedited and raw depiction of the realities of single motherhood and the welfare state.  Janie, a single mother of five who recently separated from her husband, Charlie, allows filmmakers to follow her trials and tribulations as she attempts to provide for both her children and herself.  While the film is shot in a way that emphasizes the struggles of single motherhood, it also goes to great lengths to depict the inspiring effects that an empowered single mother had on a poor community in Newark, New Jersey.  With the film’s up-close shots of Janie sitting exhausted and coughing at the kitchen table after a long day of cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children, audiences are able to see the physical toll that single motherhood takes on this woman’s health and vitality.  This presentation of Janie combined with the way in which the camera follows her around and interviews her as she goes about her daily duties as a single mother allows audiences a glimpse into the endless chaos that comes with this type of lifestyle.  The seemingly endless struggle is complicated, however, by the one-on-one interviews that the film crew conducts with Janie.  In these interviews, the struggling single mother demonstrates an empowered and inspired view on her new life.  In one particularly poignant interview Janie claims “’Before I was my father’s Janie, and then I was Charlie’s Janie, and now I am Janie’s Janie.  I have to be my own person’” thus demonstrating to viewers a drive and determination that she has created for herself, which I have come to realize perfectly coincides with Lorde’s essay on the Uses of the Erotic.

In Janie’s Janie, both the one-on-one interviews as well as the progression that the film depicts of Janie’s character demonstrate a seamless embodiment of Lorde’s theory on the connection between the erotic and power.  In her essay, Lorde claims that “the fear that we cannot grow beyond whatever distortions we may find within ourselves keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, externally defined, and leads us to accept many facets of our oppression as women,” which is sentiment that Janie reiterates especially at the beginning of the film.  For Lorde it seems that erotic revolves around an acceptance and understanding of your inner desires.  In this manner, Lorde appears to be arguing that once a woman accepts and acknowledges her inner desires, whether they be sexual, emotional, or intellectual, she can begin to throw off the shackles of societal oppression, which was a sentiment that was clearly demonstrated in Janie’s Janie. Viewers hear the physical, mental, and emotional abuse that Janie suffered at the hands of her father, and they also hear the ways in which Janie had come to accept them as true.  She accepted the fact that she needed to get married and get pregnant in order to escape her father’s abuse, and she accepted the fact that she would be confined to a loveless marriage and a solitary and isolated existence as a stay at home mother.  She accepted, in essence, the “externally defined” gender norms that left her without a voice, without opinions, and without companionship.  Upon separation from her husband, however, something inside Janie changed that allowed her to think, act, and demand what she desired for herself and her children.  The film underscores this internal transformation by transforming the manner in which Janie is presented to the audience.  In the second half of the film, Janie is no longer confined to the isolated existence of single motherhood.  She is filmed outside of the house with other women doing things other than cooking and cleaning her house.  She is organizing groups of single women, she is fixing major appliances, and she is smiling and enjoying her life.  She is no longer the exhausted and sick housewife who is confined to her house.  She is free and liberated both spatially as well as intellectually and emotionally.  In essence, she has found her purpose by unlocking the erotic power within.


An Eye on Consent: The male gaze and female pacification in Michael Gordon’s “Pillow Talk”

Women playing to male desire was thematic in Hollywood, and was a phenomenon catalyzed by commercial films in life off the screen. Surges in eating disorders, for example, evince internalized beliefs—most often by women—that they have aesthetically failed to ‘play’ to a male sexual appetite. “In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact is that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Women displayed as sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to striptease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire” (Mulvey 1975).Women in such films as Pillow Talk are cast to ‘hold the look’ directed upon them by heterosexual male subject, but it is worth noting that such male subjects are cast to have their held by the female object, even if it is not held by her eyes. (As the average male identifies with the casted one, the expectation develops that the object of the average male’s desires will also hold his gaze.) In question was not whether the female object in Hollywood films would fulfill his scopohilic desires, among others, but how much of ‘a fight’ she would put up in between first gaze directed toward her and the two winding up horizontal, limbs entangled (even if such an ending is only implied as in Pillow Talk).

Of course, there are moments Pillow Talk, other films, and in lived lives where a lack of awareness that the male gaze is being cast upon her renders the female object powerless in managing it. The one-way gaze signifies desire, which, according to Mulvey, “allows the possibility of transcending the instinctual and the imagined” (1975).2 While desire may transcend the imagined through its capacity to bring us actual pleasure (at least temporarily), such transcendence does not make the desired situation any less of an egotistic projection nor figment of the imagination. Notwithstanding a loaded performance by Doris Day, casting Rock Hudson as a bifurcated character (Wojcik 2010)3 makes any potential female desire for male attention conflated with desire for attention from someone like Rock, neither fully Brad nor fully Rex. When (fragile) masculine identifications with Rock’s performance—a performance that encodes facility in wooing the object and in manipulating himselves to do so—compounds with female desire for like-Rock male attention, male confidence is built higher on contradictory assumptions that she is both passive and secretly ‘wants it.’

Assumptions that occur within the film, as well as those produced and implied by the film for gendered sexuality performances in society, beg important questions about consent. Is the male gaze an act that creates desire he might later act upon sexually? Or is the male gaze a nonconsensual (but private) imposition of desire on another body—an experience from which he derives pleasure from her without her knowledge? If the male gaze creates a desire that cannot be fulfilled by gazing, later action by the male (of which the female must be aware for his masculinity to be affirmed) becomes requisite. For example, after eyeing Jan in front of his mother, Harvard man Tony Walter offers to drive Jan home. Shortly thereafter the shot cuts to a parked car, inside of which Tony is attempting to sexually dominate Jan.  After having verbally denied Tony repeatedly, he says: “it’s your word against mine.”4 While such an utterance elicits observable cringes from audience members steeped in today’s political climate, this scene and this phrase indicate that the film was conscious of consent to sexual advances in a way that Wojcik (2015) claimed it could not possibly have been.5

Alternatively, if the male gaze uses a female object to fulfill desire (by bringing the gazer sexual pleasure), then her say in an act of arousal is considered irrelevant and she is further pacified in the male imagination. When Brad is sitting at the dinner table with his date and sees Jan dancing, we get a vertical panoramic of Jan’s backside (apparently we had seen enough go her front-facing beauty) from Brad’s perspective. Pleasure here is implied as Marie, his actual date, becomes the butt of the joke. Suddenly, the carnal pleasure Brad would receive from the evening’s activities on his rotating bed with Marie pale in comparison to that which he is receiving simply from observing Jan’s corporeal movements. Despite relying on Jan for its production, the gaze here operates as auto-erotic response to Brad’s narcissistic projections of how he imagines he will “score” with Jan once he flips the switch on an automated process(es). It would be impossible to argue that auto-eroticism requires consent from an arousal-inspiring body. Nonetheless, the extent to which the male gaze pacifies its object lowers inhibitions to actualization of objectifying behavior in inter-personal interactions, as when Brad carries Jan from her bed and then through the streets against her wishes. Brad literally setting his sights on Jan is pleasurable because of the sexual fantasy that him gazing can produce, but additionally so because he subconsciously exaggerates his own agency in transferring this situation from imagination to reality.

The male gaze thus doubles as a pleasurable act that fulfills desires and as motivator to act later in ways that satisfy (more sexually ambitious) desires. Both depend heavily on the objectification, pacification, and sometimes manipulation of a sexually desirable female by a male subject. Brad “court[ing] the lady through a wicked pretense” (Crowther 1959)6 violates Jan, and the film is far more self-aware of this violation than scholars like Wojcik credit it to be. Such a reading of the film is supported by (relatively seldom) manifestations of female agency. Chief among them is inclusion of the redecorating trope at the end of the film. Not only do Jan’s redecorations fly in the face of the Playboy bachelor pad aesthetic, which spacialize and insulate Brad’s masculine identity (Wojcik 2010),7 but they also flout his personal tastes. In a non-sexual fashion, Jan’s revenge conquest similarly requires her to bypass Brad’s consent.  To “get the girl” with her consent, Brad must accept emasculation, rendering female consent and ideals of masculine control mutually exclusive. Post-war urbanity rewove a web of oft-intersecting masculinities and femininities, and the space of the apartment created an opportunity for males and females alike to assume a more multiplicitous set of public, private, and private-public hybrid identities. This reading is far from retroactive, as it was this kind of urban life—single females and males alike occupying their own apartment-closets—that brought to the fore a clash between male and female agencies that had been expanding in parallel to one another.

To conclude this discussion, I would like to comment on the camera’s relationship to the audience, and particularly its male subset. It is obvious that the camera is an instructive mechanism; its positioning and focus notify viewers of where they should direct their attention. However, the concept of the camera is internalized by audience members during the formation of their relationships with characters in a film. That is to say, viewers relate aspects of their identities (i.e. heterosexuality, masculinity) to aspects of characters’ performances—performances which are done for the camera. While some readings of the film queer Rock’s performance of masculinity or otherwise compromise it, most scenes of the film crystallize a then-formative urban, masculine heterosexuality. The average male’s identification with Rock’s putatively masculine desires parallel an identification with his performance; it is with the notion of Rock’s masculinity coming under constant surveillance in mind that male viewers conceptualize and idealize their future behavior. (Let the record reflect that societal forces like Helen Gurley Brown encouraged the same occurrence, if not more overtly, for women at the time.8) Utilization of a split screen and the eventually failed bifurcated identity suggest a collapse of public and private, as well as according expressions of gender and sexuality. At a formative historical moment for urban male identities, Pillow Talk and other films assisted with the installation of a panopticon, of sorts. The camera’s material representation of a felt panopticon affirmed the necessity of gendered and sexualized performances to actively rebuke anxieties and threats to hegemony, even if for men that frequently came with the cost of emotionally or physically violating women.



  1. Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introudctory Readings. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 199: 833-44.
  2. Ibid. 837.
  3. Pamela Wojcik, “We Like Our Apartment,” The Apartment Plot: Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture, 1945 to 1975, 107, Duke University Press (Durham and London), 2010.
  4. Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon, US, 1959).
  5. Pamela Wojcik, “Teaching Pillow Talk,” The Cine-Files, Issue 9, Fall 205, http://www.thecine-files.com/teaching-pillow-talk/.
  6. Bosley Crowther, “The Screen: ‘Pillow Talk,’The New York Times, Oct. 7, 1959, https://www.nytimes.com/1959/10/07/archives/the-screen-pillow-talk.html.
  7. Pamela Wojcik, “We Like Our Apartment,” The Apartment Plot: Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture, 1945 to 1975, 88-138, Duke University Press (Durham and London), 2010.
  8. Laurie Oulette, “Inventing the Cosomo Girl: class identity and girl-style American dreams,” Media, Culture, & Society, SAGE Publications (London), 21:3(359-383), 1999.

The Sonic Space of the Phone Line in “Pillow Talk”

In the readings and class this week, we talked a lot about interior spaces and external selves fashioned for men and women through Playboy and Cosmo, respectively. I am interested in considering how these apparently divided spheres of the single man and single woman intersect in Pillow Talk—and the role of the phone in romance. The phone is what enables the separate domestic spheres to intersect. As some of the humorous opening scenes show, most of Brad’s seduction takes place over the phone; he talks to many different women and sings them songs he “wrote for them.” The women on the other end of the line cannot see Brad’s apartment (although presumably many of the women have already been inside at one point or another). The phone line that Brad and Jan share is also what brings them together. I particularly enjoyed the use of the split screens to show phone conversations, showing how the sonic landscape of the phone line bridges the spaces between them. In the scene where Jan and “Rex” are both on the phone, with each of them in their respective bathtubs, they each rest their feet on the wall, and their feet seem to press up against one another as they meet in the middle. (What’s also interesting is that Jan’s bathroom has blue-toned walls, while Brad’s has pink-toned walls?) In the opening credits, we also see a split screen showing the bodies of Brad and Jan in their beds, decoratively and color-coded as masculine/feminine—but they are able to toss the pillows between one another. There is the creation of a weird, impossible-seeming new space, between public and private spaces, allowing for shared interactions without either leaving their personal domestic realms.

The lack of a private phone means that private lives are never actually that. This ties into what Wojick describes as the bachelor pad as a “fantasy space,” producing a dual identity and bifurcated self. Brad embodies this dual identity literally through his performance as Rex, but the presence of split screens and voiceovers revealing the character’s thoughts further heightens that sense of “the imaginary bachelor pad” and the concealment of identities. But in the same way that Wojcik cites Henry Urbach’s study of the twin spaces of the closet, these identities are never fully concealed, and “private” spaces are never really private. The frequency with which various characters eavesdrop on one another also shows the lack of total privacy even in domestic spaces. As with the Playboy interiors is a voyeuristic quality throughout—only instead of Brad wanting to be seen, he wants to be overheard. Brad calls Jan “an eavesdropper on my party line. She always listens in. It brightens up her drab, empty life.” Overheard conversations seem to allow for the creation of fantasy—Alma calls herself one of the “most devoted listeners” of Brad, and takes visible pleasure in hearing him sing to women.

On a related note, the party line also returns to these questions of economics, and the desire for upward mobility that magazines like Cosmo suggest drives many relationships. On one hand, Jan quite financially secure, able to afford her own apartment: “I have a good job, a lovely apartment, I go out with nice men, to the theater, the best restaurants. What am I missing?” she says. She is immune to Jonathan’s attempts to woo her with displays of wealth (as he bemoans, “Money seems to have lost its value these days.”) Jan doesn’t need wealth, and while Brad also has some financial stability, he still is at the mercy of his show’s major backer, Jonathan. Yet there is still a financial/technological element that makes the key romance possible. Without the shared telephone line, Brad and Jan never would have “met” one another—so if Jan had had the financial means to get her own line from the phone company, the romance would have been impossible. In addition, the final resolution between Brad and Jan comes down to money once again, with Brad hiring Jan to do his apartment. It seems that, even with a financially secure protagonist, the question of money and its relationship to romance and marriage is unavoidable—and when the separate domestic spaces are eventually merged, the future presence of the child is suggested by the acquisition of another possession: a pillow.


10/8 Reading Journal: Gender and Spaces

From this week’s readings, I am especially interested in Wojcik’s “We Like Our Apartment: The Playboy Indoors” and how it can be placed in conversation with Ouellette’s “Inventing the Cosmo Girl” and Spigel’s “Television and the Family Circle” (from last week). What I found most interesting about Wojcik’s text is the idea that identity can be bound to physical space/location. More specifically, Wojcik points out that in the case of the bachelor pad, the bachelor pad produces the bachelor as playboy while the figure of the playboy in turn produces the space of the bachelor pad. Wojcik’s text maps a geography of masculinity onto the space of the “bachelor pad” apartment. The multi-textured floorings and walls, earth tones, brown wood, shag rugs, bars, and furniture choices form an identifiable aesthetic that both confirms to the bachelor-as-playboy and communicates to others his seduction, heterosexuality, and masculinity.

The bachelor pad serves as a “space or stage for display: the smooth performance of bachelorhood enacted via activities such as hosting and decorating and via external codes of design and costume (Wojcik 109).” Bachelorhood necessitates constant performance that is materialized through the interior landscape of the bachelor pad. Wojcik underscores that the dependent relationship between the bachelor identity and the physical space of the bachelor pad suggests that the masculinity and heterosexuality of the bachelor identity must be constantly reinforced and therefore neither essential nor stable. Following this frame of logic, I understand the formation of the bachelor-as-playboy identity through the curating of the bachelor pad as an extension of Judith Butler’s idea of gender “performativity.” Butler understands the constitution of one’s gender as a process of continual performance of artificial social conventions; in short, gender is a social construction and the bachelor pad is a material manifestation of heterosexuality and masculinity that is not necessarily intrinsic to the bachelor-as-playboy.

As a provisional thought, I am interested in looking at Wojcik’s figure of the bachelor in contrast to Ouellette’s analysis of the figure of the Cosmo Girl. While the bachelor/playboy projects himself into a physical space that he curates, the Cosmo Girl is contained within herself through means of self-improvement. Though women in generally are more closely associated with the domestic space, the Cosmo Girl’s identity as a single, working-class woman means that she is not afforded the same domination or control over a physical space onto which to project her desires and sexuality.

I also wanted to touch on the way in which Playboy magazine locates masculinity and heterosexuality in the urban, indoor space of the bachelor pad apartment. Rather than emphasizing the mastery of the outdoors or the taming of the wilderness/unknown (through activities such as camping, backpacking, “roughing it”), the bachelor-as-playboy’s masculinity is sourced from his power and control over the domestic space of the home. The way the furniture is arranged dictates where different activities/types of socialization will occur while the decorations of the bachelor pad assert into the space the bachelor’s masculine subjectivity and influence. One of the most important features of the bachelor pad seems to be the various technologies such as the hi-f- speaker sets, large televisions, and remote controls that can dim lights, control the TV, close drapes, turn off the phone, etc. These forms of domination and control are not dissimilar from the mastery of the outdoors, only that they are now exercised through the usage of technology instead. This specific type of “technologized domination and control” might then be connected to the modern-day technologies of voice command and digital assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google’s Google Home’s default female voices. I also found it interesting how in contrast to the role of technology and the bachelor-as-playboy, in the “Television and the Family Circle” Spigel suggests that the presence of the television set in American homes threatened the masculinity and patriarchal authority of the father. Technology reveals a contradiction; it at once disrupts traditional family ideals through the emasculation of the father figure while also extending the masculine power and control of the single bachelor.