CATHERINE SPOONER …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
Cosmo-Gothic: The Double and the Single Woman
Beat defeatism. Visualise an `ideal you’ who’s mentally and physically content. What makes her tick? How does she deal with tricky situations? Mentally go through what it’s like to live as her and practise this every day for three weeks until you feel able to deal with problems as she does.
(`101 Fab Ways to Transform Your Life!’, 19, May 1999) Doubles and Individuals
The DoppelgaÈ nger, or double, is a frequently noted feature of Gothic fiction. It is usually associated with texts labelled as `male’ or sometimes `paranoid’ Gothic: texts that focus on the psychology of the villain rather than the heroine, and deal with masculine rather than feminine imprisonment. These range from early examples, such as William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794) and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), to Edgar Allan Poe’s `William Wilson’ (1839), and to classic fin-de- sieÁcle manifestations of the theme, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). The ascription of the label `male’ to these texts is partly due to the Freudian model of masculine paranoia as repressed homoerotic desire through which they are often read, and partly to the fact that the main characters and their doubles are almost invariably men (though not necessarily their authors, as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) demon- strates). Female doubles are relatively thin on the ground in late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts, and have accordingly been overlooked by critics. Doubles in general remain a surprisingly under-explored topic, but the female DoppelgaÈnger is even more under-theorized than her male counterpart. This is particularly surprising in that the female double has
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… Women: a cultural review Vol. 12. No. 3.
ISSN 0957-4042 print/ISSN 1470-1367 online # 2001 Taylor & Francis Ltd
http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals DOI: 10.1080/09574040110097292
COSMO-GOTHIC: THE DOUBLE AND THE SINGLE WOMAN . 293 …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
become increasingly predominant in the twentieth century, from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), to Emma Tennant’s postmodern rewritings of earlier `male’ Gothic texts from a female perspective, The Bad Sister (1978) and Two Women of London (1989). As a corrective to this trend, therefore, this essay offers some suggestions as to why the female double is com- paratively late to emerge, and how she can be interpreted. In the process the 1992 film Single White Female, which offers perhaps the clearest and most dramatic rendition of the female DoppelgaÈ nger theme of recent years, will be explored in some detail.
In folklore the DoppelgaÈ nger is traditionally regarded as a harbinger of death, but in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature is usually inter- preted as performing a more complex psychological function. Karl Miller’s book Doubles is the most significant work on the topic but, while it presents a broad sweep of literary history from Shakespeare to Martin Amis, it is largely concerned with detecting `duality’ in the authors’ biographies rather than their fiction (Miller 1987). Miller gives minimal consideration to the place of Gothic in the literary tradition of the double, although he allots substantial space to Hogg, Poe and Stevenson. According to Miller, the DoppelgaÈ nger is primarily a feature of male literature: only men have doubles (Sylvia Plath being the exception that apparently proves the rule). This argument seems wilfully to overlook Gilbert and Gubar’s seminal The Madwoman in the Attic, which presents a convincing argument for the presence of literary doubles in the writings of Charlotte BronteÈ , Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Emily Dickinson and others (Gilbert and Gubar 1979). However, this apparent oversight on Miller’s part may in fact reflect the historical conditions surrounding the emergence of the double in western literature. Initially, the rise of the double is clearly due to the emergent notion of the individual in modernity. It is only when value is invested in a unique, coherent subjecthood that fear can be generated through its duplication or disintegration. As Paul Coates argues in his study The Double and the Other: `Paradoxically, the Double enhances the ideology of individualism: it puts the self in the place of the other’ (Coates 1988:2). Thus, if women within patriarchal society have not been allowed access to a unified subject-position, it follows that the representation of doubles will be that much more rare. As the notion of woman as a unified speaking subject has become more stable during the twentieth century, female doubles have become more prevalent across all forms of cultural production.
Arguably, the characterization of these doubles is precisely bound up with the formation of the feminine subject through discourse, and specific- ally through the discourses of fashion. For the striking thing about doubles is, of course, that in most cases they look alike: they share surface features, clothing, mannerisms. Beginning with nineteenth-century texts such as Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, a prevalent
294 . WOMEN: A CULTURAL REVIEW …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
Gothic trope has been that in which one character `steals’ the identity of another or, alternatively, becomes trapped in an alien identity by wearing (or recreating) their clothes. Gil-Martin, the demonic double of Hogg’s religious fanatic Robert Wringhim, informs his proteÂ geÂ :
If I contemplate a man’s features seriously, mine own gradually assume the very same appearance and character. And what is more, by contemplating a face minutely, I not only attain the same likeness, but, with the likeness, I attain the very same ideas as well as the same mode of arranging them, so that, you see, by looking at a person attentively, I by degrees assume his likeness, and by assuming his likeness I attain to the possession of his most secret thoughts (Hogg 1991:101±2).
In this passage, it is one’s outward appearance that is privileged over internal thoughts in the constitution of identity. Furthermore, it is the act of looking, of `contemplating a face minutely’, that gives access to this identity. By `looking at a person attentively’ Gil-Martin is able to replicate himself in their image. Identity is therefore apparently constituted out of surface signs. This is consonant with the theorization of Gothic by Eve Sedgwick in The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, in which she insists that Gothic texts offer not a surface and depth model of the psyche, in which a deceptive exterior conceals repressed fears and desires, but rather one which is constructed purely out of surface mechanisms: costume, disguise, masks, veils (Sedgwick 1986). For women, this bears an added significance in that the formation of femininity has always been bound up with the mechanics of appearance.
In contemporary Gothic texts the DoppelgaÈ nger trope can be interpreted through the prescriptive femininity and the politics of individual fulfilment that are expressed in women’s fashion magazines. Although women’s journals have existed since the seventeenth century, they were first issued in the form recognizable to a contemporary reader between the First and Second World War. Throughout the twentieth century, as Ros Ballaster et al. argue, magazines have offered a profoundly ambivalent model of femininity to their readers, in which
there is a clear gap between what is and what the magazine claims she `ought’ (to desire) to be. Femininity, therefore, becomes both a source of anxiety and a source of pleasure because it can never be fully achieved. The magazines perpetuate this myth of femininity and offer themselves as a solution (Ballaster et al. 1991:124).
If this `myth of femininity’ is established early on in the century, it is no less predominant in titles introduced from the late 1960s onwards, such as Cosmopolitan, which provide the most immediate context for Single White Female. The combination of a concentration on physical appearance and an ideology of the individual is a distinctive feature of these magazines and
COSMO-GOTHIC: THE DOUBLE AND THE SINGLE WOMAN . 295 …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
therefore is particularly appropriate for contextualizing the female double. As Janice Winship argues in Inside Women’s Magazines, the serials from the 1960s and 1970s promote an ideal of self-expression through consumer choices (fashion, interior decorating) that appear to offer an illusion of individuality while simultaneously limiting it to the domestic sphere (Win- ship 1987). Furthermore, this ethic of choice often spills over into the myth of the `superwoman’, the woman able to `have it all’ to whose lifestyle the ordinary reader is implicitly supposed to aspire. Thus the imperative to `be oneself ’ is both circumscribed by consumer choices and necessarily tied into the notion of attempting to be like someone else: a superior model of the self.
Twentieth-century DoppelgaÈ nger texts increasingly bring out the double- edged nature of this ideology. Fashion is presented as entrapping the protagonists, both in that they feel alienated from the myth of ideal womanhood to which the culture demands they aspire, and in that the choices they make frequently turn out to be no real choices at all, but something replicated by their sinister doubles. Thus in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca the double is an image of perfected femininity that diminishes the protagonist’s own identity andÐat the crucial scene at the fancy dress ball at the centre of the textÐthreatens to usurp it altogether (du Maurier 1962). In Emma Tennant’s novella The Bad Sister, however, the double takes on an even more sinister role as that which threatens the protagonist’s `singularity’, her uniqueness in a culture dedicated to personal pleasure and self-expression (Tennant 1995). This is reiterated in Barbet Schroeder’s film Single White Female, which is in many ways the apotheosis of the female DoppelgaÈ nger narrative. In this film in particular, fashion provides a primary mechanism through which the exploration of the DoppelgaÈ nger theme is produced. The protagonist Allie’s advertisement for a `Single White Female’ flatmate implicitly just like herself culminates in the nightmare scenario of her new flatmate’s attempt to steal her identity by fashioning herself in Allie’s image, much as Gil-Martin steals Robert Wringhim’s identity by assuming his appearance. Existing interpretations of this film have tended to read it psychoanalytically, regarding both main characters’ preoccupation with their appearance (and their reflection in mirrors) as a symptom of narcissism and repressed lesbian desire. Following Sedgwick’s The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, however, Single White Female is, in common with many other Gothic texts, arguably less interesting when read according to a psychoanalytic surface and depth model than when attention focuses primarily on surfaces. To perform such a reading it is useful to investigate the role of the discursive context provided by women’s fashion magazines in the production of Allie and Hedy’s DoppelgaÈnger relationship. While psychoanalytic readings of the film are not necessarily refuted, they can arguably overlook a crucial aspect of the way in which its central characters’
296 . WOMEN: A CULTURAL REVIEW …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
relationship is constructed, and thereby read the film as providing a less sophisticated commentary on contemporary femininity than it actually does.
The key critical text to theorize male doubles in Gothic literature is Eve Sedgwick’s Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985). While Sedgwick’s discussion of male relationships is extremely convincing, her characterization of those between women is much less satisfying. Sedgwick adopts Claude LeÂ vi-Strauss’s term `homosociality’ to explore the function of male bonding under patriarchy. Thus she argues that the doubles featured in what she calls `paranoid Gothic’ express the relationships between men in a homophobic society in which male bonding is nevertheless a mechanism of power. The relationships between men in these texts are not necessarily representative of homosexual desire, but rather of the kind of mechanisms, usually intensely homophobic, through which patriarchy consolidates its power and women become objects of exchange. For instance, of Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner she writes:
even motifs that might ex post facto look like homosexual thematics (the Unspeakable, the anal), even when presented in a context of intensities between men, nevertheless have as their first referent the psychology and sociology of prohibition and control. That is to say, the fact that it is about what we would today call `homosexual panic’ means that the paranoid Gothic is specifically not about homosexuals or the homo- sexual; instead, heterosexuality is by definition its subject (Sedgwick 1985:116).
Sedgwick uses the motif proposed by ReneÂ Girard of the `erotic triangle’ to describe this relationship, in which two men fixated on the same love object form a rivalry that eventually takes precedence over the relationship with the beloved. According to Sedgwick: `In any erotic rivalry, the bond that links the two rivals is as intense and potent as the bond that links either of the rivals to the beloved’ (1985:21).
Thus while women are frequently if not invariably the object of exchange that enables this relationship, the apex of the `erotic triangle’, they are seldom presented as rivals within it themselves. For Sedgwick, this is not only due to the fact that, under patriarchy, men symbolically hold the positions of power but also to the different quality of male and female homosociality. In Sedgwick’s discussion of male homosociality, the homosocial and the homosexual exist on a continuum, but the visibility of this continuum is radically disrupted for men in modern western society. Female homosoci- ality, she argues, suffers no such disruption and `the adjective “homosocial’’
COSMO-GOTHIC: THE DOUBLE AND THE SINGLE WOMAN . 297 …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
as applied to women’s bonds . . . need not be pointedly dichotomized as against “homosexual’’; it can intelligibly denominate the entire continuum’ (1985:3). Thus the concepts of `women loving women’ and `women promoting the interests of women’ are not radically dissevered but participate in the same set of discursive practices.
This interpretation, reminiscent of Adrienne Rich’s notion of the `lesbian continuum’, is problematic as it erases the way in which in contemporary society the assumption of lesbian identity is for the majority a conscious choice that suffers an equivalent, if differently inflected, stigma to that of gay men. Female homosociality may not suffer the same dichotomous break from homosexuality as its male counterpart, but the continuum is never- theless riddled with smaller gaps and divisions, visible in different ways to different subjects. What occurs `between women’ may not be the same as that which occurs `between men’, but it is certainly not a Utopian zone of undifferentiated sisterhood. If, as Sedgwick argues, the presentation of a DoppelgaÈ nger narrative necessarily expresses a relationship between men, then twentieth-century female DoppelgaÈ nger narratives equally indicate an interrogation of relationships between women. In du Maurier’s Rebecca, for example, or Tennant’s The Bad Sister, the DoppelgaÈ nger relationship veils an `erotic triangle’ in which the female relationships are defined through a third, male character: Maxim de Winter and Tony Marten. In Single White Female the same function is performed by the character of Allie’s boyfriend Sam. Similarly, in all of these texts, the relationship between the female character and her DoppelgaÈ nger overtakes that with her male partner. However, they also overturn Sedgwick’s idealized notion of the mutual supportiveness of relationships between women. For Sedgwick, the continuum between `women loving women’ and `women promoting the interests of women’ has an `apparent simplicity’ and `intuitive force’ (1985:3). Yet in Rebecca, The Bad Sister and Single White Female, the pairs of female rivals try to become and to destroy one another in turn. In Single White Female in particular, the two features of the continuum are brought together in a terrifying, oppressive way: Hedy’s attempts to promote Allie’s interestsÐfor example, after she has been sexually harassed by an employerÐbecome a sinister means of emotional control. To some extent these texts are radical in that they foreground the relationships between women, which gradually erase or replace heterosexual relationships with men, and in that they invert conventional `homosocial’ relations in which women are the object of exchange. However, on another level they are conservative in that female same-sex relationships are ultimately seen as dependent on male definition and unable to exist outside the context of heterosexual relationships.
298 . WOMEN: A CULTURAL REVIEW …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
For Paul Coates, the double becomes banal in the world of multinational
capitalism. He argues that
the multiplication of reflecting surfaces, mirrors and plate glass in modern architecture enhances the self-consciousness of society, the sight of one’s own image ceases to harbinger death or trigger a devastating flash of self-knowledge but pops up fleetingly and irritatingly wherever one walks, a slow seepage of identity. The appearances of one’s own image become a banal and casual punctuation of everyday life (Coates 1988:35).
This passage aptly describes the film Single White Female (1992), which is set in contemporary Manhattan and in which the protagonist’s flatmate grad- ually transforms herself into her DoppelgaÈ nger. Hedy, the DoppelgaÈ nger, is a continual irritating presence for her new friend Allie; the two girls are continually caught and framed in ubiquitous mirrors, and the narrative takes place within the everyday urban environments of apartment block, laundry, hairdresser and clothing boutique. However, the `slow seepage of identity’, the banal double who `pops up . . . irritatingly wherever one walks’ is shown to carry her own terrors. Furthermore, in the case of Allie and Hedy, these terrors are gender specific, in that they are profoundly implicated in the discourses of contemporary femininity.
Single White Female, although situated in this resolutely contemporary context, makes numerous gestures towards earlier Gothic texts. If, as Chris Baldick has argued, Gothic is evoked through a necessary combination of claustrophobic space and the oppressiveness of history (whether social or psychic), these two qualities are conveyed by the labyrinthine block of apartments in which Allie resides and Hedy’s secret obsession with her dead twin (Baldick 1993). The Victorian apartment-block is rent-controlled, and therefore desirable to the young white professionals who inhabit it, but riddled with sound-carrying air-vents, antiquated lifts and a cavernous cellar. The environment is continually emphasized by vertiginous shots of the building’s exterior or atmospheric views of the apartment in deep shadow. The apartment provides the story’s raison d’eÃ tre: when the protagonist Allie splits up with her boyfriend Sam, she advertises for a roommate to avoid having to live alone. It is also a significantly domestic space in which the ensuing problematization of feminine individualism is to be played out.
Significantly, however, the first image of the film is not the apartment (which provides the background to the opening credits) but a pair of pre- pubescent twins adorning themselves with lipstick. This image both invokes the secret in Hedy’s past (the death of her twin sister in childhood), and
COSMO-GOTHIC: THE DOUBLE AND THE SINGLE WOMAN . 299 …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
provides an emblem of Hedy and Ally’s incipient relationship. Significantly, one twin is foregrounded as the active partner, as she first applies the lipstick while looking in a mirror and then applies it to her sister. She is therefore not only doubled in her twin but also in the image in the mirror. Hedy’s search for her `missing twin’ is embodied not only in her infatuation with Allie but also in a desire to distance herself from her own image, to project as `other’ the image in the mirror. During her final showdown with Allie, she is looking in a mirror as she says, referring to herself: `No one’s seen her. She’s not on the lease, there’s not even a fingerprint of hers here, I’ve been cleaning like crazy.’ In adopting the identity of her flatmate, Hedy has attempted to erase her own existence. While she remains an active subject (`I’ve been cleaning’), to the external world she does not exist because she no longer looks like herself. Appearances have not only replaced but also erased the person.
The film’s title implicitly suggests the threat of the double to the construct of the `single’ woman, a historically specific category of femininity brought into being by magazines like Cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitan, which was originally founded as a serious literary magazine in 1886, was relaunched to enormous success in 1965 (and in Britain in 1972) under the editorship of Helen Gurley Brown. Brown had achieved celebrity status through the publication of her massive bestseller, Sex and the Single Girl (1962), and convinced the Hearst Corporation that the book’s philosophy could form the basis of a profitable magazine. Brown’s radical new formula set out to `advise girls on how to get the best from their lives, how to improve themselves and their careers and how to live their own livesÐnot through a man’ (Braithwaite 1995:96). As Janet Winship indicates: `Less sexually bold than might be imagined, the book was more significant, at a time when any unmarried woman over 25 already felt herself stigmatised “the spinster’’, for its celebration of being single’ (Winship 1987:106). Thus Cosmopolitan, and its many subsequent imitators, offered a pseudo-liberated lifestyle for the young white professional woman that was heavily based on an ethic of self- improvement. These magazines tended to advocate personal fulfilment through sex and shopping, and reiterate stereotypes of heterosexual romance and the frenzied consumption of clothing and cosmetics, even as these stereotypes were repackaged for a generation in which women were expected to attend the workplace, live on their own and have numerous sexual partners before marriage. Equality was refigured as `independence’, and made compatible with more traditional aspects of femininity. As Ellen McCracken argues, `the magazine allows women the impression of a pseudo-sexual liberation and a vicarious participation in the life of an imaginary “swinging single’’ woman’; ultimately, however, it tends to reinforce conservative values and even `disguise women’s lack of real power in contemporary society’ (McCracken 1993:159, 162).
300 . WOMEN: A CULTURAL REVIEW …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
The film’s title initially appears to refer to Allie’s marital status: it is after breaking up with her fianceÂ Sam that she decides to advertise for a roommate. However, the word `single’ also takes on the connotations of `singular’ and `unique’ when, ironically, Hedy turns herself into Allie’s double. This dual meaning is also implied in Cosmopolitan’s espousal of the `single girl’ who is implicitly one of a kind, her own woman. The emphasis on fulfilling one’s own potentialÐwhat Winship terms `aspirational feminism’Ðsuggests a projected self-realization, a self-fashioning: `being a woman involves constantly adjusting one’s own image to fit time and place in an ever-changing game of images’ (Winship 1987:106, 101). Paradoxically, however, the way in which this self-actualization is to be achieved is regulated and standardized, and the end-product a universalized icon. This icon, the `superwoman’, also suggests a potentially alienating gap between aspiration and achievement. To Hedy, Allie is the embodiment of this kind of woman: attractive, successful, confident and well-groomed. As she is quick to point out, Allie is (ironically, regarding the title) unlikely to remain single for long.
With this in mind, it becomes clear that Hedy, in imitating Allie, is performing the same kind of self-improvement based on images of other women that is promoted by the likes of Cosmopolitan, and espoused by Allie herself. Hedy’s first attempts to look like Allie are couched within the terms of the conventional `makeover’, a common feature of women’s magazines and also of films with a female target audience, from teen films such as Clueless (1995) and She’s All That (1998) to recent blockbusters such as the Sandra Bullock vehicle Miss Congeniality (2001). Hedy admires Allie’s sophisticated style of dress (`It’s just so New York’) and Allie responds by damning with faint praise (`I think you look very comfortable’). The pair embark on a shopping spree in which Allie tutors Hedy in which ensembles look good together. By taking her in hand she is performing a role not unlike that of the `elder sister’, which Helen Gurley Brown envisaged for herself (Braithwaite 1995:96). Similarly Hedy, by replacing her own image with Allie’s, is performing the role of the magazine’s ideal reader. As Ellen McCracken argues of fashion magazines in general:
Ideal images of the future self encountered on the front cover are multiplied and reinforced in feature after feature. Free to indulge in a narcissism based on fantasy, one can, for a moment, forget one’s actual appearance in the mirror, replacing that memory with the magazine’s concrete examples of ideal beauty. Ostensibly, these images are positive projections of the future self (McCracken 1993:135±6).
Where Hedy departs from the behaviour of countless other women is that her replacement of her own reflection with Allie’s is literal rather than merely fantastical, and is sustained for longer than the `moment’ of identi-
COSMO-GOTHIC: THE DOUBLE AND THE SINGLE WOMAN . 301 …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
fication McCracken describes. In Hedy, the `normal’ feminine subject- position becomes pathological. This seems to be the most crucial element of the film, and that which complicates the conservative `good girl/bad girl’ division criticized by commentators such as Lynda Hart in Fatal Women (1994) and Karen Hollinger in In the Company of Women (1998). Single White Female suggests that femininity itself is pathological, that the practices attendant on `normal’ femininity are in themselves deviant. For while Allie is clearly the character with whom the viewer is expected to identify, and there is little room for sympathy with the pathological Hedy, Allie’s behaviour in fact mirrors Hedy’s: the two are insufficiently distinguished (and this is significantly what allows Hedy to imitate Allie so completely). As Stella Bruzzi indicates, both girls indulge in similar behaviour: `it is Allie . . . who instigates a shopping trip and admires Hedy as she tries on new clothes that happen to look just like her own, and who later sneaks round her flatmate’s room dabbing on her perfume and trying on her earrings’ (Bruzzi 1997:142). For Bruzzi, this suggests Allie’s `unarticulated narcissism’ through which `she becomes fascinated with someone who is fascinated with her’ (142). However, this narcissism is implicitly contained within the `normal’ practices of femininity as defined by the film. Allie’s concern with maintaining her striking appearance is presented as conventional, that required of a professional New York female; when replicated by Hedy it becomes more disturbing. When Hedy, sporting a new haircut identical to Allie’s, gazes in the bathroom mirror exclaiming `I love myself like this!’, her behaviour is only strange due to the attendant context: the image in the mirror is virtually indistinguishable from Allie.
`Worse things than being on your own’
Single White Female is saturated with fashion discourse. Allie’s job is designing fashion software, and her relationship with Hedy is defined in terms of clothing right from the outset. When Hedy first arrives at the flat she is dressed in a watered-down version of the grunge wear popular in the early 1990s: long, shapeless dresses, leggings, baggy t-shirts, floppy hats. Allie, on the other hand, is immaculately groomed. Hedy is forced to remove her clothes when a tap bursts over them both, and to borrow some of Allie’s while her own things dry. This innocuous incident is typical of the way in which the film suggests that the girls’ relationship is cemented in terms of bonding over clothes, and also of the way in which the `sharing’ of clothes and subsequently identities takes place within a normalized discourse of femininity. It is, again, presented as `normal’ for flatmates to borrow each other’s clothes. While shopping together, Hedy and Allie admire the same pair of black stilettos, and Hedy says: `You take ’emÐI’ll just borrow them
302 . WOMEN: A CULTURAL REVIEW …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
when I want to.’ Subsequently, it is Allie who first invades Hedy’s territory by going into her room and trying on her perfume and her earrings. This activity is presented as a sign of the increasing intimacy between the two girls, which causes discomfort, but which is viewed as embarrassing rather than out of the ordinary.
The two women are continually framed by mirrors in the same way as the twins in the opening sequence. For Stella Bruzzi, Hedy and Allie’s `preoccupation with checking and rechecking their image is . . . a sign of weakness’ (Bruzzi 1997:142). However, while Bruzzi is correct about the way this indicates both characters’ need for reassurance (a point I will return to) her interpretation leans uncomfortably towards the stereotype of concern with appearance as a characteristically weak, feminine trait. It also fails to distinguish between the different way in which each character uses the mirror. As Karen Hollinger argues:
Single White Female employs [the female gaze] to delineate the normal woman from the insane one. . . . Allie is always portrayed looking straight ahead at the mirrored surface, while Hedy is often shown gazing at Allie with a mixture of desire, identification, and concealed malice. These mirror shots dichotomize the female gaze between Allie’s `healthy’ and Hedy’s `unhealthy’ ways of looking (Hollinger 1998:221).
In other words, according to Hollinger, the film constructs Hedy’s evident desire for Allie as `unhealthy’; lesbian sexuality is demonized and patholo- gized. While there is undeniably an element of truth to this, the film does not promote heterosexual desire as a `healthy’ alternative, as Hollinger and also Lynda Hart have suggested. Rather, it suggests that dependence on another individual of either sex is a weakness. The voice of reason within the film is Allie’s gay friend Graham, who inhabits a flat on the floor above and who provides advice and emotional support during her crises. Early on in the film, when he and Allie discuss her split with Sam, he insists on the importance of independence: `What is thisÐa song cue? You’re nobody till somebody loves you? . . . There are worse things than being on your own, you know.’ Echoing the self-help discourses of women’s magazines, he insists on the precedence of career over relationships and, when Allie tells him, `You’ll find someone again’, he rejoins: `Maybe I willÐwhy not? But the point is, if I don’tÐI don’t.’
Allie is punished by the film not for straying from a heterosexual relationship to a female friendship, but for her weakness in needing a continual companion in order to establish a sense of self. Ironically Graham is right and she really is nobody until somebody loves her. After her reconciliation with Sam, she reiterates to Hedy the bland consolation she offered Graham, telling her that she too will `find someone’. Here she is playing into Hedy’s discourse of need for a partner rather than Graham’s
COSMO-GOTHIC: THE DOUBLE AND THE SINGLE WOMAN . 303 …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
insistence on self-help. This weakness, her fear of being single, is in some ways the mirror image of Hedy’s. The difference is that her need is constructed through a normalized heterosexual dependence on a male partner, while Hedy’s search for her lost twin is viewed as pathological. Singleness is also implicitly experienced differently by different women: Hedy reminds Allie that her attractiveness means it is unlikely she will ever be without a partner for long. The two girls’ faces are contrasted in the mirror frame: Allie auburn-haired, groomed and implicitly desirable; Hedy dark, small and dowdy. Hedy tells Allie: `Why don’t you look in the mirrorÐ lookÐyou’re in a different league.’ However, the repetition of the word `look’ and the foregrounding of the shared gaze indicates that the difference Hedy identifies lies primarily on the surface, in their appearance. As Hedy begins to manipulate her appearance to resemble Allie, the `difference’ between the two women is thrown into a dizzying state of collapse.
According to an early commentator on Cosmopolitan: `Sex for the Cosmo Girl is attainment of desirability, not through the quality of her existence as a woman, but through collecting the symbols of sex: perfumes, clothes, figure, atmosphere’ (Moore 1967:86). The accoutrements of femininity, rather than any intrinsic quality, constitute her sexual identity. This complies sugges- tively with the theories of Joan Riviere and Judith Butler concerning femininityÐand ultimately genderÐas masquerade. However, in Single White Female, it is not only femininity that is shown to be a performance but identity in general. Significantly, the cheque cashier assumes Hedy is an actress because of her changes in appearance, but says of her `Allie’ look: `I just thought [it] was more you.’ Ironically, Hedy as Allie is more herself than her `real’ incarnation, undermining the audience’s assumption that the original Hedy was the `authentic’ one. By taking on the surface signs of Allie’s personality, Hedy is able to become her. Allie first sights the transformed HedyÐnewly coiffed in imitation of AllieÐin a hairdresser’s mirror. Shortly afterwards she tells Graham: `It’s like looking at myself.’ Subsequently, after Sam’s murder, Allie tells Hedy: `I know you weren’t yourself when you did this thing.’ Hedy replies: `I know. I was you.’
Single White Female appears momentarily to close the gap between aspiration and achievement, in that Hedy’s identity does for a limited time merge with that of the idealized feminine figure towards which she aspires. In doing so, it reveals the problematic basis of this fantasy. In the process of achieving her desire, Hedy becomes a monster. Her deranged performance as Allie is an ironic enactment of `having it all’, even when the `all’ belongs to someone else. Furthermore, Allie herself, the icon of perfected femininity, is revealed to be intrinsically flawed, exchanging roles with her imitator in order to become her victim. The film thus reveals the `superwoman’ as an illusion, existing only in the eye of the beholder.
The film also offers a radical departure from Sedgwick’s notion of the
304 . WOMEN: A CULTURAL REVIEW …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
placid continuum of relationships between women. In this film, the concepts of `women loving women’ and `women promoting the interests of women’ are radically dissevered. Despite the evidence of homoerotic desire evinced in the relationship between the protagonist and her double, it does not lead to solidarity but to each seeking the other’s destruction, to relationships of reciprocal animosity. `Perhaps I haunted her as she haunted me,’ the heroine of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca realizes (du Maurier 1962:231); similarly, Allie in Single White Female is forced to kill or be killed. Indeed, if the film foregrounds a relationship between women at the expense of those with men, this relationship is a complex mixture of attraction and repulsion, loathing and desire. Ultimately, relationships between women are not presented as supportive but as destructive; in this narrative of doubleness, there is finally only room for a single woman.
Baldick, Chris (ed.) (1993), The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ballaster, Ros, Margaret Beetham, Elizabeth Frazer and Sandra Hebron (1991), Women’s Worlds: Ideology, Femininity and the Woman’s Magazine, Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Braithwaite, Brian (1995), Women’s Magazines: The First 300 Years, London: Peter Owen.
Bruzzi, Stella (1997), Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies, London: Routledge.
Coates, Paul (1988), The Double and the Other: Identity as Ideology in Post-Romantic Fiction, Basingstoke: Macmillan.
du Maurier, Daphne (1962), Rebecca , Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar (1979), The Madwoman in the Attic, New Haven:
Yale University Press.
Hogg, James (1991), The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner: Written
by Himself , Edinburgh: Canongate.
Hollinger, Karen (1998), In the Company of Women: Contemporary Female Friendship
Films, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
McCracken, Ellen (1993), Decoding Women’s Magazines: From Mademoiselle to Ms.,
Miller, Karl (1987), Doubles: Studies in Literary History, Oxford: Oxford University
Moore, Allan J. (1967), `The Cosmo Girl: A Playboy Inversion’, in Robert Theobald
(ed.), Dialogue on Women, New York: Bobbs-Merrill.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (1985), Between Men: English Literature and Male Homo-
social Desire, New York: Columbia University Press.
ÐÐ (1986), The Coherence of Gothic Conventions , rev. edn, London: Methuen.
COSMO-GOTHIC: THE DOUBLE AND THE SINGLE WOMAN . 305 …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
Tennant, Emma (1995), Travesties: The Bad Sister, Two Women of London, Faustine, London: Faber and Faber.
Winship, Janice (1987), Inside Women’s Magazines, London: Pandora Press.