‘Bad’ Mothers, ‘Evil’ Children, Queer Men: The Representation of Gender, and Gendered Roles in the Patriarchal Family in Lynne "Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin" and "You Were Never Really Here"

Durrans, Thomas Craig (2021) ‘Bad’ Mothers, ‘Evil’ Children, Queer Men: The Representation of Gender, and Gendered Roles in the Patriarchal Family in Lynne "Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin" and "You Were Never Really Here". Masters thesis, University of Lincoln.

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‘Bad’ Mothers, ‘Evil’ Children, Queer Men: The Representation of Gender, and Gendered Roles in the Patriarchal Family in Lynne "Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin" and "You Were Never Really Here"
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Abstract

“It’s about nothing being black and white, and traumas creating other traumas” – Lynne Ramsay (Film4, 2018)

There is a scene at the start of the second half of You Were Never Really Here (Ramsay, 2017) where the supposed hero, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), has just rescued a young girl named Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) from a child prostitution ring. They both sit on a bed in a hotel room, waiting to hear from her father, Senator Votto (Alex Manette), before a news alert flashes on the television. The news report informs them that Votto, who is later revealed to be a part of the child trafficking conspiracy Nina was trapped in, has seemingly jumped from his office building, and killed himself. It is a complicated scene. It calls into question the position of Joe as the hero, the moral justifiability of his violence against the men he has just killed, and the ‘evilness’ of Votto. It is emblematic of the films challenging attitudes towards conventional ideas of masculinity, heroism, and ‘evilness’ because it generates a degree of sympathy towards a character who would normally be regarded as ‘evil’, and complicates the assuredness of Joe’s heroic quest by taking Nina’s role in the narrative beyond being an object to rescue. This sense of moral ambiguity is a common theme in the films of Lynne Ramsay. Her films construct complex narratives and characters that challenge conventional cultural perceptions of notions such as gender and ‘evil’. Yet, at least academically, this complexity has yet to be fully explored by critical analysis.

Alicia Malone identifies that, alongside Ramsay’s work, many films that have been directed by women have not received the same critical analysis that films directed by men have. In the introduction of her book, The Female Gaze: Essential Movies Made by Women, she writes, “female filmmakers (and our experiences of film as a whole, including who has historically written about film) have been limited by the barriers of gender, race, and sexual orientation” (2018, 3) What Malone notes here, is not just the lack of opportunity given to women filmmakers, but also the lack of scholarly attention paid to the films made by women that are released. Furthermore, most scholarly work on women filmmakers’ work often centres on narratives focused on women. Sophie Mayer’s book, Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema (2016), for example, discusses the work of women filmmakers in both mainstream and independent cinema in recent times and analyses how they have provided progressive representations of female protagonists. Additionally, Melanie Bell and Melanie Williams state in their book, British Women’s Cinema (2010) “recent films with female directors at the helm have told women’s stories of great dramatic intensity” (2010, 16). On the other hand, there is an extensive variety of scholarship on representations of masculinity in cinema. Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark’s seminal edited collection, Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema (1993) is but one example, as is Pat Kirkham and Janet Thumin’s You Tarzan: Masculinity, Movies and Men (1993). Peter Lehman has also written on masculinity in Masculinity: Bodies, Movies, Culture (2001) and Running Scared: Masculinity and the Representation of the Male Body (2007), as has Bruce Babington, Ann Davies, and Phil Powrie in their book The Trouble With Men: Masculinities in European and Hollywood Cinema (2004). More recent examples include Nicola Rehling’s Extra-Ordinary Men: White Heterosexual Masculinity in Contemporary Popular Cinema (2009), Susanne Kord and Elisabeth Krimmer’s Contemporary Hollywood Masculinities (2011) and Timothy Shary’s edited collection Millennial Masculinity: Men in Contemporary American Cinema (2013). What is notable about these works, however, is that almost all their analyses centre on films made by men. It thus appears that there is an increasing amount of scholarship focusing on representations of women in films made by women, and extensive academic work discussing representations of men in films made by men. However, the discussion on representations of gender in films made by both men and women requires expansion. There is still a need, therefore, to understand the ability of films to either perpetuate or defy the patriarchal ideologies surrounding gender and gender expectations in contemporary culture. In other words, here is an opportunity to contribute a piece of academic work to an exciting and growing area of film and gender studies.

The aim of this thesis is to explore the representations of gender and gendered roles in the patriarchal family in films directed by Lynne Ramsay, namely We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) (hereafter: Talk) and You Were Never Really Here (2017) (Hereafter: Never). This thesis seeks not only to understand how men and women are depicted in these films, but how the constructions of gender within these characters can be seen to defy gendered expectations of a heteronormative patriarchal society. It will be argued that Ramsay challenges societal expectations of masculinity and motherhood through themes relating to ‘evil’, violence, and queerness to produce representations of gender that resist conventional heteronormative depictions of men and mothers in mainstream contemporary cinema. The term ‘contemporary cinema’, in the context of this thesis, refers to films released in the UK and US in the 2010s, the period in which both the films analysed in this thesis were released. These arguments will be developed through textual analyses of Talk and Never while drawing on a variety of critical sources. This thesis will join recent gender scholarship in acknowledging that the concept of masculinity (Rehling, 2009), and the notion of gender itself (Whelan and Pilcher, 2017), are in constant flux, and dependent upon social, historical, and cultural factors. The key theoretical and socio-historical framework within which the films’ construction of masculinity, motherhood, and gender expectations is to be understood and will thus be outlined. The thesis will thus closely analyse Talk and Never. These films have been chosen because they contain narratives that provide intricate representations of gender and family and explorations into themes of motherhood, ‘evilness’, and patriarchy.

The first chapter of the thesis will serve to contextualize the key theories and methodologies which will then be deployed to analyse the films in the following case-studies. Firstly, however, it will be acknowledged that this thesis is by no means the first piece of scholarly work to focus on Ramsay’s films. There is an existing variety of scholarship on all four of her feature films and this will be outlined in order to identify where this thesis can provide original analysis and add to the growing academic conversation. Once this has been established, the key theories of gender and masculinity will be introduced. Judith Butler’s theory of performativity will form the foundation of this thesis’ understanding of gender as it suggests that the concept of gender is a cultural construction and that individuals ‘perform’ their gender to conform to social expectations (2006, 190). The topic of masculinity will then be approached through various key concepts, the first being violence. Research 9 into screen violence has shown that violence is seen as a ‘guilty pleasure’ by audiences (Bacon, 2015) and its ritualization is often used to display hegemonic masculinity (Grønstad, 2008). Much scholarship in this area argues that violence is seen as a masculine concept in contemporary society (Bowker, 1998). However, Ramsay’s depiction of violence in Talk and Never is much less simplistic than conventional perceptions of the behaviour in contemporary cinema and so prompts deeper analysis. The second aspect of masculinity to be identified is sexuality, and the thesis will thus draw upon queer film theory to illustrate how the lead men in Ramsay’s films defy the mainstream heteronormative society that is often depicted in contemporary cinema (Nowlan, 2010). Additionally, key theories and ideas regarding motherhood will be discussed here so as to provide context to the analysis of Eva (Tilda Swinton) in the Talk case-study, but also to the analysis of Never to a certain extent in regards to Joe’s mother. The theoretical framework posed by scholars such as Sarah Arnold, Julia Kristeva, and Barbara Creed will thus be discussed in the first chapter. Sarah Arnold’s book, Maternal Horror Film: Melodrama and Motherhood, will prove most useful here as it draws upon the discourses of the ‘monstrous-feminine’ (Creed, 1993) and abjection (Kristeva, 1982) in order to produce arguments regarding the concept of the ‘Bad’ Mother. Using Arnold’s notion of the ‘Bad’ Mother throughout the thesis can open up discussions on how the representation of mothers, and their roles within the family, in Ramsay’s films defy conventional patriarchal images of motherhood. Finally, the work of Simon Baron-Cohen will be introduced in this chapter in order to contextualize the notion of ‘evilness’ and how it links to discourses surrounding cultural perceptions and the concept of empathy. His book, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (2012) will aid in analysing Kevin’s perceived ‘evilness’ from a theoretical approach. Baron-Cohen’s methodology in understanding ‘evilness’ can illustrate how Kevin’s behaviour and development effects the representation of masculinity and the mother-son relationship in Talk.

With the key theoretical framework of the thesis outlined in chapter one, chapter two will deploy this theoretical approach in an analysis of Talk. This chapter will analyse Kevin’s ‘queerness’ and the perception of him as an ‘evil child’ alongside the representation of motherhood in Eva and will link these concepts and ideas in order to understand how they form the relationship between mother and son in the film. The analysis of Eva, and her biological and cultural role as Kevin’s mother, will explore the notion of the ‘Bad’ Mother posed by Arnold. Using the notion of the ‘Bad’ Mother to analyse Eva will aid in the thesis’ argument that Eva’s representation as a mother subverts patriarchal expectations of gender and motherhood. The concept of the ‘Bad’ Mother can also be linked to the idea of the ‘evil child’ when discussing Eva’s and Kevin’s relationship. Here, Simon Baron-Cohen’s theories of empathy (2012) can be used to discuss Kevin’s ‘zero-empathy’ personality and how his behaviour relates to the perception as an ‘evil’ child that defies the hegemonic ideals of the role of a male child. Kevin’s perception as ‘evil’ can also be linked to a construction of queerness in the representation of his gender, and this construction will be discussed in conjunction with Ezra Miller’s star image and the depiction of masturbation.

The case-study of Never will focus less so on the representations of motherhood and the mother-son relationship, but instead will discuss depictions of violence and sexuality. In order to argue that Joe’s use of violence subverts traditional masculine representations of violence in contemporary American cinema, the case-study will note the ‘hero as rescuer’ narrative trope, drawing on the scholarly work of Joseph Campbell (2004) and Karen Lury’s work on Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976) and the notion of the “little white girl” (2010). A comparative analysis between You Were Never Really Here and Taxi Driver will thus be conducted to illustrate how Joe subverts the stereotypical depiction of the male ‘hero’. The case-study will apply this argument to Joe’s character but within the context of contemporary cinema of the 2010s through analysis of the editing and cinematography used in the ‘rescue’ scene. A queer reading of Joe will also be made in order to further argue that he defies traditional heteronormative representations of male ‘heroes’ in contemporary cinema. This analysis will lead into a discussion of the true cause of Joe’s trauma, circling back to the ideas of family and motherhood to illustrate how the pressures to perform hegemonic masculinity oppresses and damages people of all genders.

The concluding arguments to be put forward by each case study in regard to representations of masculinity, is that Kevin is presented as outwardly ‘different’; his perception as a queer, ‘evil’ child displays his explicit challenge to the patriarchal ‘nuclear’ family. On the other hand, Joe struggles to adhere to heteronormative patriarchal conventions of society by attempting to live the male fantasy of a ‘hero’ through committing violence and repressing his sexuality. These challenging representations of masculinity in addition to the subversive depictions of motherhood, will evidence the ultimate argument of the thesis: Talk and Never offer representations of gender, and the gendered roles within the family, that defy the heteronormative and hegemonic norm of the patriarchal conventions of American society and contemporary cinema.

Divisions:College of Arts > Lincoln School of Film & Media > Lincoln School of Film & Media (Film)
ID Code:47690
Deposited On:04 Jan 2022 09:43

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