Master, Mother + Magdalene (Analysis)

…Gender roles in Western cinema, 1921–1971

Blonde Venus, 1932

Early-mid 20th-century cinema is rich with films, and essays written about them, which would not themselves exist without the structure of patriarchy and the preconceived notion of woman as object — whether those films are a celebratory product of, or a revolutionary action against, that patriarchy.

The idealization of the (white) woman as obedient and subservient to the (white) male, in one of two roles, is the ideal depicted in three out of the four films discussed herein. Laura Mulvey states in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, “in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female”, resulting in the ‘male gaze’ and woman as object. These aspects, in turn, and in conjunction with other social dynamics in Western culture, have also resulted in the reduction of women to two archetypes. Woman must be one, not both, and fulfill the desires of man. It is man who determines, compartmentalizes and objectifies woman in these roles. These two archetypal roles are the chaste and pure Mother Mary and the sexual object of Mary Magdalene. Both are submissive to men as object. The Sheik (directed by George Melford in 1921), Blonde Venus (directed by Josef von Sternberg in 1932), The Searchers (directed by John Ford in 1956), and Walkabout (directed by Nicolas Roeg in 1971) all evoke these themes. All four films provide a complex representation of the man as master gazing at the woman as object, revealing relative resistance even if unintended and covert. Even so, Walkabout is the only one with an overt message of resistance against this hegemony of patriarchy. Any resistance discernible in the other three is a sliver in the pie of oppressive patriarchy of those three films.

Media for “Real” Men : Man’s Roles in Cinema

In order to produce or understand an adequate insight into the overt and covert patriarchy of early-mid 20th-century cinema, one must first grok the starting point of who is seeing, who is meant to see and how this affects who and what is seen and seeing in any given film. In “Ways of Seeing” John Berger states, “the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him”. Via an assessment of the male characters and description of the diegetic in each film, this section will address the inherently oppressive patriarchy which dictates, regulates, codes and informs these four films and the oppression and/or repression of women within them as a direct function of the men in those films or the director himself. These archetypes of man and his relationship to woman not only defines woman’s role in society, but also the ideal of what a man is supposed to be as well, as an individual and in relation to the women in his sphere. Any resistance of this patriarchy is in direct response to it.

The Sheik is perhaps the clearest reinforcement of patriarchy of these four films, because it depicts a deviant woman who becomes submissive.

The Shiek, 1921

Our woman lead begins the story as a wild, encourage-able Western woman. She refuses to marry, goes into the desert alone and sneaks into a marriage auction. Her brother is depicted as weak for being unable to control her. He stumbles while riding and his manner/stance is non-dominant. The Sheikh is depicted as heroic for teaching her a lesson and finally taming her. This is evident in that he is frequently lit brightly with a connotation of romance and ideal, and the film ends with their union and the revelation that he is white. The doctor/writer Raoul St.Hubert who visits the Sheikh is depicted as friendly and compassionate because he does not shame their woman lead for her situation as captive of the Sheikh. The lead woman touches his hand and shows him appreciation — enough so to trigger jealousy in the Sheikh at least; and this doctor is frequently her advocate without deviating from the Western supremacy moral structure of the film. The Sheikh himself is depicted at first as exotic, but a positive influence on the untamed woman, which is especially and eventually defined and enforced when he is revealed to be, “the son of Europeans [which] transforms him into a superego figure who risks his life to rescue the English woman from ”real” Arab rapists” (from The Desert Odyssey chapter by Shohat and Stam). Overall, the message is clear. Man must be capable of rape, dominance and Western racial adherence, but is willing to control himself to exhibit civility, in accordance with that Western racial adherence. He must not be weak, nor uncontrollably erotic. He must have an innate aggression in the first place, which is then repressed.

Revealing the gaze of the director himself, in Blonde Venus, whenever Marlene Dietrich’s character is performing, she is bathed in bright white light that makes her glow like a star.

In such lighting, “she is more visible; she is aesthetically and morally superior, she looks on from a position of knowledge, of enlightenment — in short, if she is so much lit, she also appears to be the source of light”. She is frequently shown at a neutral or low angle and the plot of the film is not making any progress, pausing to offer erotic satisfaction for the male gaze. This erotic pause is when, according to Mulvey, “for a moment the sexual impact of the performing woman takes the film into a no-man’s land outside its own time and space”. Mulvey goes on to explain von Sternberg’s attempt to alleviate guilt, show how the man who seeks to keep woman in the home or tame her sexuality misunderstands and doesn’t see. Man’s law attempts to dominate her from afar, but close up ever man is pulled into desire for her. He idolizes her sexuality. Perhaps this is a liberation, but it asks no less submission or objectification than the Mother Mary archetype. It is essentially the incarnation of lust which is forbidden in the Mother.

According to Ann Kaplan, while von Sternberg has made every attempt to avoid the mother archetype, deviate from it even when part of the plot, he still depicts Dietrich in a way that makes her submissive to him by fulfilling his desires as an object rather than an agent of desire herself. Her portrayal will be addressed later on, but suffice to say she is portrayed according to his fantasies. This dynamic fits the Nietzsche-esque notion of liberating Eros and will in general. Herbert Marcuse, discussing Western philosophy and meta-psychology in his chapter “Philosophical Interlude” describes Nietzsche in that context thus: “For Nietzsche, liberation depend on the reversal of the sense of guilt, mankind must come to associate the bad conscience [equated here with the Magdalene, sexuality and fulfillment of selfish sexual desire] not with the affirmation but with the denial of life instincts, not with the rebellion but with the acceptance of repressive ideals”, the last here equated with the Mother Mary archetype. Nietzsche, after all, was concerned with freeing the individual self from social constraints. That is, not from patriarchy or the illusion of separation that precludes competitive survival; Nietzsche was not in pursuit of that which is classically and contemporaneously associated with achieving unity and redefining self from a gods’ eye perspective, (which we will later see is re-imagined and relayed in the contemporary sense by Roeg in Walkabout).

Despite Nietzsche’s original intention to rebel against the domination of repression in Western society via the liberation of individual will without guilt, his resolution, if applied to all people, does not serve to liberate man from his inherent antagonism. Nietzsche’s notions of liberation may free one from guilt, but it offers no meta-structure for a cooperative mutual existence between people. In fact, it stokes greater antagonism that arises from adverse wills in contact. Von Sternberg wants to liberate man’s desires from repression — to reveal the Mother Mary ideal as a repression of man’s sexual desires for women. However, his goal was not women’s liberation nor agency — his goal was that man could enjoy his true desires for the sexual-ized Magdalene. This latter woman archetype is another object, fulfilled through submission of woman, not one wherein a woman can have agency, nor escape gaze or objectification. Von Sternberg’s role is paradox in this sense. He is dependent on the compartmentalization of Mother and Magdalene in such a way that he refused to work on the film when the producers wanted to flesh out the motherhood aspect. In fact, he is repressing the connection between the two that is inherent in nature — sexuality and motherhood- even if he is not repressing sexuality itself in his idolization of Dietrich.

The Searchers depicts two lead men — Ethan and Martin. Ethan is played by the iconic male of 20th century Western cinema, John Wayne.

The Searchers, 1956

Epitomizing manhood, Wayne as Ethan exhibits an excess of antagonism — against the Cherokee and his own kin. In “The Searchers: An American Dilemma” Brian Henderson quotes Lindsay Anderson for saying, “its hero, Ethan Edwards, is an unmistakable neurotic, devoured by an irrational hatred of Indians and half breeds, shadowed by some mysterious crime. His search for his little niece … abducted by Comanches seems … inspired less by love or honor than by an obsessive desire to do her to death as a contaminated creature.” However, this attitude only proves his capacity for dominance and his great will. In the end, he does care for Debbie rather than kill her — he achieves repression and adherence to the Ideal law. He is idealized even more so because he is so capable of fulfilling his own desires and dominating others but then chooses kindness with weak women. Just as in The Sheik Ethan is capable of willful dominating aggression that he then repressed.

Meanwhile, Martin is closer to the ideal of civil society and man’s behavior with adequate repression throughout. He completely controls his urges with Laurie, only actively kissing her once, after she kissed him. He is capable of desire, he proves his capacity for violence in his resilience during the search/es for Debbie and in his triumph over Scar at the end of the film. However, this dominance is only ever a capacity — it is never willfully exerted. In “The Searchers: An American Dilemma” Brian Henderson describes how Martin is totally passive with Laurie, and is ready to defend his sister against any and all threats, including men who are more manly and people who are more white. This in fact prioritizes the protection of weak women who are not at fault for their own defilement. The defilement is blamed on the non-repressed man, who should better heed the ideal of Mother Mary (Martha), else their women will become Magdalenes.

Martin is constantly adhering the spirit of the Ideal law, to the good of protecting women from being tainted by the Other. Although his morality to save Debbie wins out in the end, he is also frequently portrayed as less capable and knowledgeable than Ethan, occasionally weak and never the alpha of the group. While he is more fully repressed, he is portrayed as less manly for having less aggression. Ethan is glamorized for being a semi-wild man who seeks the morality of the repression but still exhibits a robust capacity for domination. Henderson also explains how Martin’s unwise choice not to rest his horse, letting Ethan get there first despite sleeping through the night before riding, “and other incidents show that, despite Ethan’s hostility, Martin has a great deal to learn from him”. While Martin’s morality of repression overcomes Ethan’s antagonism, it is still Ethan and John Wayne who is depicted as most desirable and manly in the film.

The role of men in Walkabout is a bit complex and symbolic than the other three — if only because fully fleshed out male characters are few and far between.

Walkabout, 1971

We have the little boy, her brother, but he is more an allegory for childhood, civilization’s effect on the child, and a child’s ability to adapt to different contexts (perhaps to show our current culture is not an absolute?); as well as a child’s own destructive tendencies and their role in repression as that which is to be protected by civilization. In the beginning of the film, we meet her father who kills himself. He is studying geology on paper and not enjoying the beauty of the area he is supposed to be studying — he is alienated, disconnected, unfulfilled and seeking mastery; and so he takes his own life. We later meet an Aboriginal man who is never dominating, but is capable and self-confident. He is a little bit sexual but not deviously so in such a way that creates a gaze upon our woman lead nor exerts his will over her. Much like Laura Mulvey said about cinema itself in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, the man-child’s walkabout offers him and the film Walkabout itself offers the audience, “structures of fascination strong enough to allow temporary loss of ego while simultaneously reinforcing the ego”. He escapes the ego and the antagonism easily, but never completely.

He also kills himself, which seems to be an even wider message about Western civilization and humanity in general, and secondarily about male and female roles as a function of that. His role in representing the death of the ego and the true unity with others has a direct impact upon those roles. The message seems to lead to the conclusion that antagonistic adversity and the need for repression for the sake of unstable cooperation results in civilization, compared to which Aboriginal and natural life is less problematic in this way but still has a minor undertone of it, which might mean it is inevitable and inescapable. Perhaps the message is that this is a fact of life — whether originally inevitable or not, it is at least too late now. However, the depiction of women’s roles as agent is somewhat less pessimistic — the girl is never able to achieve that freedom and completeness herself, but the film was able to impart a morality and characterization that does liberate women from the dichotomy of roles she is told to fulfill, even if she is still then confined by the internalized notion of civilization and the world as it is — in so much as a man himself is also confined by this society. No one is a blank slate, the damage has been done.

Despite this pessimism about society, the Aboriginal young man’s role and allegory in the story is perfectly harmless and non-confining for the woman and forces no role on her — it is in perfect harmony with this explanation of civilization as undesirable because it is confining for man and woman equally — compounding on top of which woman is oppressed as well. All oppression, including that of patriarchy, is at an intersection with the oppression of civilization itself. The message regarding him as allegory for man may be that his purity of having only a minor aspect of the aggression, just enough to survive in the circle of life, but generally being free of it, leads only to suicide in the face of civilization. While her father takes his own life because he cannot be a person in civilization, he has already destroyed himself; the young man takes his own life because he cannot face what he would have to become in order to function in a broken antagonistic system. If anything, this perspective strongly supports the more liberating portrayal of women even within a society of adversity and domination, as he is not a dominating patriarch.

The men whose clear purpose actually is to depict patriarchy are shown in a brief, interlaced, mid-film scene. They are shown with only one woman, to whom they are deviously lustful, excessive with their gaze and depicted in a harshly contrasting, negative light.

Finally, there is one scene wherein a single man is left in charge of what was once a mine. He is there to protect the private property, even though almost everything is garbage which hasn’t been removed or is deteriorating. He is adamant about the privacy of this property, completely fearful as a result of antagonistic civilization, and refuses to help two kids who have been stuck walking through the desert for god only knows how long. He is so disconnected from the reality of survival and mutual existence, and unwilling to find out all that they’ve been through, so entirely engulfed by modern Western society and its selfish capitalistic materialism that he is not only depicted in a negative light but also humorously as an accentuated character. Yet, he too offers no indication of treating our lead woman-girl as an object. She is merely an annoyance.

Which Mary Is She? : Woman’s Roles in Cinema

A frequently recurring trope in cinema is the dichotomy of the two default archetypes for women. On the one hand we have Mother Mary — she remained virgin until after her first child, and this equates to maintaining virginity until marriage in the general public. For this type of Mary, her entire existence is structured by her relationship to husband and child/ren. As Ann Kaplan puts it in “Fetishism and the repression of motherhood in von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus”, the mother is “the perfect, all-giving presence at the service of, and under the domination of, the father … seen only in relation to her husband and child”. Her sexuality is nullified entirely by that role. Kaplan goes on to explain, “Patriarchy has represented the Mother as outside of sexuality and therefore, within a certain definition, not threatening to man. “ Her labor belongs to man and his progeny, and her pleasure must also come from serving them successfully.

On the other hand we have the whore-type, the Magdalene, the unchaste sexual object of male desire. However, she too must be subservient to man — fulfilling his desire to objectify her, possess her, his fantasies and his need to compartmentalize those sexual desires from his notion of motherhood, and in some cases even to save her from this sin. She can never be a mother herself. A woman can be either, but never both. In his essay “Ways of Seeing” John Berger writes, “ To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself”. The Magdalene archetype is always as a nude, an object, and neither Mother nor Magdalene ever get to be truly naked in their own right.

Examples of the depiction of the Shrew archetype who is punished and finally converted to the faithful Mother Mary (having not lost her virginity despite her attempts at dominance) are ample in The Sheik. The lead woman is not a Magdalene per se, but she is untamed and her lack of modesty and submission indicates she could go down either road at this point in her life. Or worse yet, end up as Spinster. Regardless of the presence of these two other, undesirable, woman archetypes, and reinforced by their presence, the Mary dichotomy is ever-present. It is only once she has been kidnapped and truly owned that she appreciates the protection from and possession by a man who is fully capable of that dominance but chooses to repress those feelings in order to fulfill an ideal of faithfulness to her, once she has become capable of fulfilling the Mother Mary archetype because she has fallen for him. In Shohat and Stam’s words in “The Desert Odyssey,”, her hubris is tamed and corrected by the, “‘fall” and “pedagogical” chastening of attempted rape”. There is a clear connotation that her submission and experience of being dominated are what made her realize her place in society — as a white woman and a wife.

Blonde Venus is a testament to the nature of the Magdalene archetype.

Despite von Sternberg’s self-perception as rebelling against the Mother archetype of prude-ness, his depiction of Dietrich as Helen, in style as well as story, show clearly how the “sexually-liberated” woman is still a submissive object for men. Von Sternberg himself had to compartmentalize this, one can safely assume. Throughout the film, Dietrich’s role as showgirl is at direct odds with her role as mother, with fetishism serving as “a way of repressing motherhood”, as stated by Kaplan. She eventually fails at motherhood in her pursuit of independence from patriarchy and apparently does the right thing by returning the boy to his father. Although the film shows extremely minor resistance by invoking sympathy for her plight, during less than one-third of the film, it continues to portray her as a victim. We are not meant to perceive her role on the run as an ideal, but it does portray fetishism as a second option to motherhood for the woman who is oppressed by motherhood. Kaplan perceives certain acting choices on Dietrich’s part to be minor, ironic resistance revealing a self-awareness of the construct, saying: “Her understanding of the extra-cinematic discourse she is placed in permits a certain distance from what is being done to her, providing a gap through which the female spectator can glimpse her construction in patriarchy” and implying that Dietrich uses eye movement and other small rebellions to open the fourth wall of that construct.

However, this no less advocates the compartmentalization of two mutually exclusive women’s roles, demanding we confine our definition of woman to these two archetypes. Later, she is seemingly liberated and in charge of her own life and sexuality (whether intended by Sternberg or not, in her male-like costume), but “at the cost of love and intimacy”, as Kaplan put it. Kaplan goes on to explain how the showgirl version of her in Paris is, “cold, lonely, hard and frigid. It is left to Nick to show her that she is really pining away for her son and the love of a man.” The job of showgirl itself reinforces the male gaze and a woman’s role as object, Magdalene. She cannot be both. When she returns to her son it is because another man has gotten her, brought her back and produced her for her husband. She then seems out of place in the home, being truly a Magdalene, not a Mother.

The Searchers, with hyperbolic ideals, elevates the Mother archetype.

Martha, The Searchers

Martha is ever submissive to all of the men in her life, asking for directions and help at every turn, waiting for her husband to open the door even for her own reverend and men she knows, being kissed on the forehead and perhaps most striking because it is the very first scene, she walked backward into the house when Ethan arrives, maintaining eye contact with him. She then lets him know that dinner will be ready when he is. Her eldest daughter Lucy is dating someone. It is embarrassing for everyone when it is revealed she kisses him. This slight deviation from the Mother Mary archetype proves karmic-ally detrimental — Lucy is killed by the Cherokee. It is only a few Hispanic women who are shown in the bar. The Cherokee women are shown in their tradition, wifely garb and manner. Even their alpha male controls their purchases — of course.

The main woman character driving the plot of the film is predominantly un-involved — spoken of and rarely seen on screen. Even though Debbie is clothed completely and matronly in her ways when she is under Scar’s dominance, she is considered tainted and Magdalene. Ethan at first wants to destroy her, Martin always wants to save her, which Ethan ends up doing in the end. Even Martin’s betrothed Laurie, invoking Debbie’s mother Martha, is so misogynistic as to consider Debbie worthless, calling Debbie a “what” rather than “who” once she has been defiled. While the film never once depicts these named characters as whore-like or even slightly imprudently dressed, mere knowledge of her role in the Cherokee family is cause for her extermination. While the film clearly idolizes repression — through the Mother idealism and through the morality of Martin overcoming the antagonism of Ethan; it is only the male desire and willful disobedience which is romanticized in Ethan. (As stated above) Any deviation from this repressive norm is not shown and/or vilified or depicted as repulsive. While the Ideal dominating patriarchy is still venerated, the film is basically saying it’s good to be a little less misogyny and forgive women for being defiled. That’s where the tiny, almost trivial aspect of resistance peaks its head out.

Walkabout, in stark contrast to the other three, reveals and protests against this dichotomy.

Blonde Venus idealizes the Magdalene and portrays the notion of Mother as a confining repressive construct for women, to be overcome in order to fulfill man’s true desires for dominance and satisfaction. The Sheik and The Searchers portray the Mother as the epitome of goodness and the Magdalene and every defilement branching from her as the uncontrollable evil that occurs when man himself is not repressive enough. Walkabout attempts to break out of this dichotomy. While the girl’s failure to achieve true unity with others and nature is an extension of the civilization in which she was socialized, the film itself actively resists and alleviates the Mother-Magdalene dichotomy of patriarchy. The aspect of mother and protection is shown as constructive in a good way, a contribution to the well-being of others — but this version which the girl has a taste of is still in contrast to the confined, oppressed mother who is absent from the rest of the film. In this way, the maternal is not patriarchal. It is resisting the notion Kaplan describes as, “symbolic patriarchal conception of Motherhood [which] actually represses mothering as it relates to mother-child bonding”. It’s a Motherhood that must also come with a natural enjoyment of woman’s own sexuality and freedom to be naked rather than the nude object of man’s desires; one with the endless cycle of life and death rather than antagonistic against others in fear of protecting one’s children — as an agent rather than the property of the antagonistic man who seeks to exert that protection.

During the journey, a young girl who is an object of sexual desire and not yet a mother — perhaps still a virgin herself — is forced to begin taking care of her brother. She learns what it means to care for a child in a more dire situation. She carries him, makes sacrifices for him and seeks his mental well-being. However, her father has killed himself and her mother is nowhere to be found — she is submitting to no one; she is always the one making decisions for the pair, even when she finds a male guide. While this self-embodiment sometimes exhibits affects of her own patriarchal civilization and colony, it never interferes with her agency as a woman. Even her mistakes are her own and do not reinforce misogyny either.

Eventually she begins to feel sexual desire for her new Aboriginal companion. Yet, we are continuously shown her erotic thoughts from her perspective, not his.

Later in the film, we see cuts between her pondering and images of him.

She is attracted and it is her own thoughts and internalization of civil antagonism which cause any fear of intimacy — not his aggression. Additionally, there is a particular scene that is emphatically overt about this theme. In this dual-scene, the film is relatively quickly cutting between two scenes — contrasting them. In one scene, the girl is swimming in a pond. There is no one there to look at her — both of the boys are off elsewhere. We cannot even see her figure or the details of her body, we can only see a white blob under the water in a lake — we only know that she is completely naked, but we cannot gaze upon her because she is protected by the natural pond itself. She cannot be object, there is no gaze. Only her` being and enjoyment. This scene is intermittently and concurrently cut with a scene depicting four men sneaking glimpses of skin from the one woman who is working with them. She crosses her legs and we see closeups of their eyes excessively emoting lust. Her shirt is open and she seems to go to close it, but waits a second while they look, and we again see their devious lust. One man even offers her a free pack of cigarettes just to get close enough to look down her shirt. As Magdalene, despite her specialist scientific knowledge, this woman must use that devious lust that becomes so antagonistic as a result of that repression, in order to acquire material goods. We see only this negative light on the Magdalene constraint, contrasted with the absence of their Mother in the wild because that mother was just a feature of the patriarchal structure they left behind in Sydney.

Walkabout depicts the potential of a woman who to be truly free when she is free from the dual constraints of society — having to adhere to the purity of being Mother while simultaneously looking appetizing and fulfilling the sexual desires of men as Magdalene. It is no mistake that this truest depiction of being is the end scene — achievable only through memory. Herbert Marcuse, in his chapter describing Western philosophical thought from Ancient Greece through Nietzsche, describes the tension between Eros and Thanatos, aggression that is inherent in ego and the pursuit of life instincts which are mutually reproductive, and other dynamics which are placed in tandem or odds with each other depending on the philosopher.

One recurring theme is the notion of eternal return — the recurring oneness of nature, regardless of whether a particular definition is encompassing the finite absolute or an infinite absolute nous, which can either seek to transcend through progress or find completion through inclusion and mutual living or at least acceptance of death. Here there is a concept which Hegel introduced that this completeness can only be achieved through the remembrance of all existence — what Aristotle deemed only visible from a gods’ eyes perspective, is synthesized in Roeg’s film with the deeper dichotomy of innate aggressive competition — versus oneness with the presence of both life and death which can alternatively result in harmony and the pursuit of mutual benefit. On the one hand, “[f]reedom involves the risk of life, not because it involves liberation from servitude, but because the very content of human freedom is defined by the mutual “negative relation” to the other” — which is in accordance with Nietzsche’s thinking and the culmination of the Logos of alienation. It is the goal of many plot functions.

On the other hand, “[m]utual acknowledgement and recognition are still the test for the reality of freedom, but the terms are now forgiveness and reconciliation” — or a redefinition of the self as including the Other which is in accordance with Hegel’s thinking.

The message of Walkabout is best described by relaying Marcuse’s later statement in that same chapter: “the “negative relation to the other” is ultimately, in the existence of the spirit as nous, transformed into productivity which is receptivity, activity which is fulfillment.” Thus, it may be apt to equate Roeg not only with Rousseau’s idolization of a return to the natural god-given state as preferable to civilization, but perhaps more so with Hegel’s. Again, in Marcuse’s words, “the spirit attains its truth, is the spirit “entering into its real self, whereby it abandons its (extraneous) existence and entrusts its Gestalt to remembrance.” Being is no longer the painful transcendence toward the future but the peaceful recapture of the past. Remembrance, which has preserved everything that was, is “the inner and the actually higher form of the substance.” … If the past is just left behind and forgotten, there will be no end to destructive transgression.” In its style and format, Walkabout consistently defies Logos itself, as well as the later notion of the will-to-power, by portraying cyclical patterns and the destructive tendency of liberation-alienation. The girl is later pacified, as Nietzsche would describe it, but she has gotten a glimpse of an even higher truth, which rebels against the aggression and domination, aggression which is itself the logical conclusion of Nietzsche’s individualist philosophy, that which she is struggling against.

When she is free, when she fantasizes about what could have been in the desert, an ideal past, rather than in Sydney, she imagines herself enjoying nakedness, not being a nude as object. Yet she is also with her little brother, ensuring his safety without being confined by that role in a such a way that mutes her own sexuality or turns it into something perverse. Its fullest depiction is her fantasy of it while in civilization, because civilization has already “won” in its conquering of nature as well as woman- no matter the detriment that causes. Civilization is already to present in nature and must be internally escaped. Thus, Walkabout rebels, resists and achieves deviation from this dichotomy of submission and male domination; while simultaneously combining the essences at the core of each Mary archetype, the part of each which are desirable by women as agents and beings, in its completeness.

In conclusion…

Throughout these four films, the dichotomy of Mother Mary versus Magdalene is portrayed, revealed and reinforced. In the three films which offer little to no resistance against patriarchy,the Mother or the Magdalene is revered, compartmentalized from the other, while the ill-favored one is repressed along with all notions of woman as agent. Yet, Walkabout transcends and fuses together these archetypes into a more comprehensive portrayal of woman’s agent and being. Even as Walkabout indicts the civilization by which patriarchy prevails, and pessimistically concludes its triumph through the girls internalization of that civilization throughout, eventually to return to it, the woman leading the show is depicted as agent and so much more than this dichotomy. While Blonde Venus and Walkabout overtly reveal archetypal Mother Mary norms of woman in Western society, Blonde Venus also continually reinforces patriarchy and the submission of women to men via the Mary Magdalene archetype. Meanwhile, films like The Sheik and The Searchers make no clear attempt to do so in the first place- these two reinforce the patriarchy of their cultures in such a way that any residual resistance is eclipsed.


  • Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. 1990. 28–39.
  • Kaplan, Ann. Fetishism and the repression of Motherhood in Von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus (1932). Women of Film, Both Sides of the Camera. 1983. 49–59.
  • Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. (Also on BBC). 1972. 45–64.
  • Dyer, Richard. The colour of virtue: Lillian Gish, whiteness and femininity. Women and Film, A Sight and Sound Reader. 1993. Icons:1–9.
  • Shohat, Ella; Stam, Robert. The Desert Odyssey. Unthinking Eurocentrism. 2014. Tropes of Empire:166–170.
  • Henderson, Brian. The Searchers: An American Dilemma. Film Quarterly. 1980. 34:2:47–73
  • Marcuse, Herbert. Chapter Five, Philosophical Interlude. Eros & Civilization. 1966. 106–127.
  • Nichols, Bill. Walkabout. Cinema 7. 1971. Fall.