Beyond the looking glass: the narcissistic woman reflected and embodied in classic Hollywood film
Linking the images of stars as contrasting as Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, and Gloria Swanson, and uniting genres like romantic comedy, film noir, and melodrama, the figure of the narcissistic woman stands as a versatile, ever-present extra- and intra-diegetic force in the dream factory of classical Hollywood. She is, in fact, the lead in what sociologist Edgar Morin conceptualizes in The Stars (1957) as a golden-age “myth of love”: Calling upon the psychic and sensory investment of her fans with her otherworldly aura and material impact, the female star emerges as both the active subject of romantic narratives and the admired on-screen partner in a love affair with the spectator. Like Ovid's original Narcissus before her, the narcissistic woman of Hollywood exists, as Morin describes it, to “focus…love's magic on [herself].” Contemporary film theory, however, has interpreted the star not as a subjective force in this dialogical “magic” between actress and spectator but rather as the product of a patriarchal system of filmmaking, one that objectifies women both on the screen and in the audience. In an effort to further analyze the questions of identity and representation evoked by the female star and her audience, this thesis will seek an alternative to the binaries that tend to characterize the traditional understanding of women in classic Hollywood (that is, spectator/star, narcissistic subject/idealized object; male/female, active/passive). Rather than read narcissism as a one-dimensional, monologic preoccupation with one's image, this research posits that classic cinematic representations of the woman's relationship to the self invite an examination of the existential complexity of a figure negotiating the registers of corporeal reality and ethereal ideality, star persona and diegetic character. In the hopes of highlighting the active engagements – between star and role; spectator, actress, and filmic form itself – inspired by these cinematic entities and their “myths of love,” this work will connect psychoanalytic concerns with Edgar Morin's cultural history of Hollywood, Laura U. Marks's theory of haptic visuality, and the phenomenological understanding of film outlined by Vivian Sobchack in an exploration of the embodied subjectivities borne by the on-screen Narcissus and her off-screen audience.