Rosina hides her Jewish identity when she travels to England to become a governess, symbolically taking the name “Blackchurch.”

Charles, the mind man, in his lab experimenting with photography.

Rosina and Charles’ son Henry, the body man.

Rosina and Charles begin an affair after woking together in his lab. She takes a photo of him naked while he is sleeping which later distresses him to see.

Rosina and Charles are playful and erotic together but she finally rejects him.


Rosina discovers fixative in a process for which Charles takes credit.

Rosina and her sister in their bourgeois Jewish family home.

Rosina gets revenge by showing the photo of the naked Charles to his wife.

Rosina leaves her employ with stolen equipment to set up a portrait studio of her own.


Passion and
a passion for learning
in The Governess

by Peter Lehman and Susan Hunt

The 1998 film The Governess, written and directed by Sandra Goldbacher, begins with the death of a young Jewish woman’s beloved father in mid-19th century London. In accordance with Jewish law, the woman, Rosina da Silva, is barred access to her father’s body in death. Later, for financial reasons, Rosina takes a job as governess in the family of a wealthy scientist, Charles Cavendish. By the end of the film, Rosina gains “access” to the bodies of both Charles and his son. Although the film belongs to the strong woman genre, its narrative deals with the woman in relation to both literal and symbolic access to the male body, the penis and the phallus in a manner that qualifies any simple affirmation of the heroine’s power.

The film contrasts the bodies to which Rosina gains access—father and son—with the scientist father figure associated with the mind, and the handsome, athletic son linked more to his body. They both desire the beautiful Rosina who’s positioned between them. This configuration places the film within a larger narrative paradigm in literature and film, one structured around a mind/body opposition. In this paradigm, a conventionally attractive, intelligent young woman is engaged or married to an intellectual, often upper-class male, but is discontented. Her malaise is revealed to be sexual in nature when she meets a working class man associated more with his body than his mind who consequently awakens her sexuality. The “mind men” in these narratives are explicitly depicted as poor lovers and often subjected to a variety of narrative punishments. On the other hand, the “body men” demonstrate stellar sexual performance and in general have privileged status in the narrative.

In addition to depicting differing, hierarchized masculinities, these narratives usually depict the domain of the mind, often equated with the upper-class, as stultifying—a spirit-shattering existence filled with pompous, shallow people—whereas the working class world of the body men has great vitality, as epitomized in Titanic. This scenario with deep-seated roots in Western narrative tradition resonates with particular force in 1990s Hollywood films; it proliferates in mainstream works such as Titanic(1997), Legends of the Fall (1994), The Horse Whisperer(1998), Moonlight and Valentino (1995) and I.Q. (1994), as well as indie works such as The Piano (1993) and Sirens (1994), among many others (Lehman and Hunt).

The ideology supported by these films reinforces the cultural clichés that intellectual men are inadequate lovers while working class or “earthy” men are inherently good lovers. The intellectual in Sirens bobs up and down on his wife as she stares vacantly at the ceiling, while the handyman—whom the wife goes to later that same night—immediately touches her in all the right places, giving her a furniture-gripping sexual experience. The brainy brother in Legends of the Fall fears his first sexual encounter with his fiancée, whereas the body brother is shown bringing the same woman repeated ecstasy their first night together (after the intellectual brother’s grisly death). Several assumptions are tacitly promulgated by these narratives: 1) power is obtained by controlling intelligent, attractive women through sexual performance, 2) women will benefit from the sexual experience the body men can give them, and 3) body men “have what it takes,” without developing their minds, to “give it to” women. In fact, as expressed in these films and other cultural venues, developing the intellect might actually undermine sexual appeal in that intellectuals are seen as socially-awkward nerds. Anti-intellectualism prevails. In these narratives, the body is “where it’s at,” so to speak, with an assumption that also has insidious undertones for women since they have historically been defined by culture as “bodies” more than “minds.”

The emergence of the body guy as a prominent figure in twentieth century literary and filmic narratives and the common opposition between the body guy and the mind guy within such narratives is related to capitalism and its attendant urbanization. In his book, Castration, Gary Taylor demonstrates that prior to Freud it was the testicles, not the penis, which dominated the literary and artistic representation of the male genitals. He links this to an agrarian economy where people were routinely exposed to the castration of farm animals, an act that removed the testicles, not the penis. Since Freud, however, the term castration has centered on the penis, not the testicles. Indeed, he virtually reverses the previous situation by minimizing mention of testicles in his writings. Taylor insightfully argues that this shift is directly attributable to the fact that Freud belonged to the first generation where the population pendulum had shifted from the farm and the land to the city; the majority of people were now cut off from the land and the people that lived and worked it.

The implicatons of Freud’s over-emphasis on the penis are far-reaching and complex but for our purposes here, it is sufficient to note that capitalism and the rise of an urban economy were central to it. It is no coincidence that the emergence of the body guy in literature coincides with this new urbanization. Early major examples of the body guy include the gamekeeper in E. M. Forster’s Maurice and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterely’s Lover. In both novels the gamekeepers are highly sexualized in opposition to the upper-class men. Similarly, the split between the mind and the body figures prominently in Hermann Hesse’s novels such as Steppenwolf and Narcissus and Goldmund where, once again, sexuality is located in the realm of the body guy while it is excluded within the mind guy.

As we have demonstrated in relationship to Titanic this mind guy/body guy paradigm has become very prominent in recent cinema (1999). The body guy figure in both literature and cinema is frequently tied to the land and/or the working classes and this can be understood in relationship to capitalism. Capitalism frequently creates nostalgia for a presumed lost past, though it is important to emphasize that those visions are of an idealized past that never existed. The gardeners, the gamekeepers, the cowboys, etc. that populate many of these narratives arose as highly romanticized, sexualized figures precisely when people were no longer in direct contact with them. The actualities of sweaty, smelly bodies inhabited by uneducated, crude, inarticulate, vulgar, rough men could disappear behind idealized images of a special relationship to the land, nature, and eroticism. And if one was not dealing with removed idealized figures of the land, the qualities attributed to those body guys found logical expression within the class distinction between blue collar and white collar workers. The blue collar workers became the class equivalent of the body guy, someone who worked with his hands rather than his mind and developed his muscles rather his brains. He may not have been close to the land but he was “close” to his body.

In this paper, we will examine The Governess within the mind guy/body guy narrative paradigm and then compare and contrast it with Conceiving Ada, another independent film directed by a woman that engages similar issues. In The Governess, writer/director Goldbacher challenges some assumptions underlying these mind/body narratives. Rosina is drawn to the world of the mind, her sexual passion awakened by intellectual stimulation. When her employer Charles Cavendish learns of Rosina’s illicit forays into his laboratory—a space forbidden to all family members—he makes her his assistant. Together they experiment with photography, seeking to concoct the first fixative agent for photographic image preservation. Rosina and Charles begin a torrid sexual affair after a fertile intellectual and professional collaboration. Unlike the bumbling and/or cold-fish mind men of other 90s mind/body films, Charles is initially portrayed as a sensitive, passionate lover, within the constraints of his time.

The body man, Charles’s son Henry lives outside the world of the mind, expelled from Oxford for wanton use of opium and prostitutes. We see Henry playing racquetball and frolicking on the beach, whereas Charles is associated solely with his scientific work. Like other body men in the paradigm, Henry is immediately attracted to the beautiful Rosina and confident in his advances toward her. In a major departure from the dominant pattern, Rosina rebuffs Henry in favor of Charles. For her, Charles has what she wants to learn, and her desire is as much cerebral as sexual.

Henry’s lack of control over Rosina also departs from the 90s paradigm; there the body men seldom falter in their ability to win over seemingly inaccessible women; and they often have a degree of control over the women by literally saving them from physical and/or psychological deaths. Rose in Titanic actually says, “Jack saved me in every way a person can be saved,” and Ada in The Piano says, “Let Baines [the body man] save me.” Henry, though confident of his own body and abilities, displays shameless desperation when he cannot have Rosina: He cries hysterically, pleads, and runs after her.

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