Poster for The Governess, one of a number of 90s films by women directors on the theme of the independent woman.
Lynn Hershman Leeson drew her character in Conceiving Ada from a real-life 19th century mathematician Ada Lovelace, who developed the computer before it was a reality and who lived a sexually independent life.
Ada “summoned” by Emmy’s computer.
The ultimate mind man, Sims— Emmy’s mentor—is seen only on a monitor. He is played by the late Timothy Leary.
The original Ada Lovelace.
In a gesture to protest being pregnant, Emmy cuts off her hair.
Ada Lovelace with her books.
The dove flies between the centuries and transposes Ada’s identity into Emmy’s unborn daughter Claire.
Rosina as the woman in between subverts the dominant paradigm; she is not saved by a man but acts to direct the course of her own life, taking a job as a governess in the first place to avoid an arranged marriage. She then acts on her curiosity about Charles’s work, insists on an equal professional partnership with him after she becomes his assistant, and initiates sexual relations with both father and son. Visual control is equated with sexual control. Though she and Charles previously made love with their clothes on, Rosina removes his pants while he sleeps, exposing his genitals, and then takes a photograph of him. Similarly in a later scene Rosina orders Henry to undress for her and caresses his prone body, as does the camera in a way traditionally reserved for the female body.
Although Goldbacher deviates in this way from the 90s paradigm, she still maintains a basic opposition between mind men and body men. In other films of the pattern, mind men are subjected to humiliations and/or eliminated from the narrative while the body men assume privileged status. In The Governess, Charles is eventually revealed to be a decidedly unsympathetic character, a narcissist and sadist. Though Rosina contributes to his work by inventing a darkroom and inadvertently discovering the crucial ingredient for photographic fixation, he publicly denies her contribution and humiliates her in a sadistic fashion. As with other films in the paradigm, such cruelty is associated with the narrative trajectory of the mind men. Ada’s husband in The Piano chops off one of her fingers when he learns of her affair with body man Baines, leaving her unable to play the piano that she so passionately adores. Cal in Titanic slaps fiancee Rose when he learns of her affair with Jack and ultimately tries to kill both of them. Charles viciously turns on Rosina when she uses the camera lens, a phallic device he has forbidden her to handle, to photograph him naked as he sleeps deeply from too much alcohol.
Though Henry’s body man is more unstable than others in the pattern, he’s a veritable saint compared to Charles, so that the narrative firmly maintains an opposition between the two men. Charles ultimately attempts to control Rosina and deny her identity as an inventor/scientist. On the other hand, Henry gives himself over to Rosina’s sexual desires and also accepts her identity as a Jew, a vastly important aspect of her life that she withheld from Charles. In contrast to Charles who could not respond when Rosina initiated playfulness, Henry offers her an opportunity to be playful. At one moment, we see Henry and Rosina gleefully dancing on a beach as Charles solemnly watches from afar. This scene is formally and thematically similar to one in Titanic in which Jack takes Rose from the sedate upper-class dining room to steerage for a “real party” and joyfully dances with her. Perhaps most significantly, body man Henry is depicted as potentially a better lover than Charles. Charles and Rosina make love with their clothing on and Charles’s hands shake as he touches her. Henry readily removes his clothing and touches Rosina in a confident, tender manner. And like other mind men in the 90s pattern, Charles is ultimately humiliated. In the film’s final scene, after Rosina has stolen one of his camera lenses and started a successful photography business in another city, Charles visits her studio and says, “I’m in your hands, Miss DaSilva. Do with me what you will.” Rosina’s response is to do nothing more than photograph him and he dejectedly leaves.
In the course of exploring how the woman gains access to and control over the male body, The Governess includes two scenes of frontal male nudity. The first and perhaps more significant of the two occurs when Rosina takes nude photos of Charles as he sleeps. After she has finished, she leaves the photos for him and exits the room. When we next see Charles, he has a troubled look on his face as he examines a photo of himself with a magnifying glass. As a direct result of this experience of being photographed unaware and then seeing the results, he instantly ends his professional and personal relation with Rosina, even going so far as to take full credit for their co-authored scientific research which led to the discovery of photographic printing. To gain retribution, Rosina brings a copy of the offending photograph to a family dinner and boldly disrupts family life by marching up to Charles’s wife and presenting it to her.
The above-described sequence of events is richly embedded within interconnecting threads. If at the beginning of the film, as we have mentioned, the young woman was denied access to her literal father’s body, she now has gained access to and control over the symbolic father’s body. The control comes in both how she objectifies the body of the man in her photograph and then how she later uses that photograph for her purposes. One of the astonishing layers of complexity here comes from the manner in which the sequence references such accounts of the history of art, photography and cinema; it echoes both John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema.”
It is now commonplace to acknowledge that the history of art, photography, and cinema objectified and eroticized the female body for the male, privileged viewer’s gaze. Yet Goldbacher here imagines the origin of photography as a moment that offered the possibility of a quite different direction. She depicts it as involving a mutual sharing and exploration of bodies with the woman behind the camera as well as in front of it and with the man in front of the camera as well as behind it. Within this context the patriarchal scientist’s response suggests why such an avenue was quickly shut off. The troubled image of Charles studying his genitals through a magnifying glass suggests his worry about something much more than his endowment (this is not another of the penis-size jokes that populate contemporary cinema). His disturbance at the very fact of the photograph indicates he has realized a central tenant of male nude photography—what Richard Dyer would so memorably describe as the fact that “the penis isn’t a patch on the phallus.” The issue is not this man’s penis.
In fact, the film makes clear that Rosina is pleased with Charles as a lover and that she takes the picture as a memento of their bodily pleasure. This contrasts with penis-size jokes; in targeting an individual as the butt of the humor, such jokes end up glorifying better-endowed men who can satisfy women and whom women desire. Goldbacher makes clear that the problem is the man’s, not the woman’s. Charles reads and responds to the photograph in a manner quite different from Rosina’s intent. Much as he is a symbolic father-figure in the film, his response symbolically encapsulates male responses within the history of photography—and cinema—to the male nude. That is, in looking at the male nude, the male viewer will discover that actual penises, when shown, are not what they are cracked up to be. In order to maintain the awe and mystique of the phallus, the penis has to remain hidden.
Male nudity is thus also embedded within the mind/body split. At the moment that the governess takes the nude photograph, she both documents and finalizes the process of introducing the mind man into the world of the body, the realm of the senses. He originally inhabited the lofty realm of the mind via his immersion in mathematics and science. He does not envision photography being about faces, the nude body, or any other body of pleasure for that matter. In a sense, Rosina drags the mind man down into the world of the body and its pleasures. Feeling threatened, he responds by withdrawing back into the world of the mind and securing his symbolic position via his (false) claim to be the inventor of photography, what Western culture would typically call the “father of photography.”
If on the one hand, Goldbacher elaborates a complex and profound representation of the penis, on the other, the narrative’s melodramatic consequences around the nude male body and its photograph place the film within an established 90s discourse about the penis. Beginning with The Crying Game (1993), the penis has commonly been shown within highly melodramatic contexts (Cobb, 1994; Angels and Insects, 1995) or it has precipitated such events after a slight narrative delay (American History X, 1998). Although these films contribute to breaking the taboo on the representation of the penis, they also contribute to a continuing cultural belief that showing the penis is, as it were, a big deal (Lehman). These films, The Governess included, all imply that images of penises have to be motivated by and/or precipitate extreme responses. In that regard, melodrama is not as far removed from awe and laughter as it may seem. The penis, if it is shown, has to elicit a strong response and melodrama is one such response.1
The film’s second instance of male nudity, again thematically complex, is also melodramatic. The sequence involves the son rather than the father and once again centers upon the governess’ gazing upon and controlling the male body. The son, the body guy, has fallen in love with the governess. When he comes to her in her bedroom, she assertively commands, “Take your clothes off. Let me look at you,” and he complies. Although this scene has only glimpses of frontal nudity, it clearly refers back to the nude scene involving the photographing of the young man’s father. The governess demands access to the male body with an emphasis on looking. And both moments relate back to the beginning of the film with her blocked access to the dead father.
Near the end of the film, after the governess rejects the son and leaves the family, we see the distraught young man emerging naked from a swim in the ocean. The glimpse of his penis in this shot is tied to the emotional anguish highly visible on his face. His nakedness, a sign of vulnerability, along with his behavior and intense emotional distress, indicate melodramatic excess, here illness.
The Governess, then, is certainly unusual in relation to the mind/body split. It initially eroticizes the realm of the mind rather than the body. Then it proceeds to have the woman seize control over both the mind guy and body guy, in the process rejecting the promise of sexual fulfillment from the body guy that other films within the paradigm celebrate. At the end, we are left to admire the manner in which Rosina takes control over her life, seizes the photographic apparatus, and moves behind it rather than in front of it. From such a perspective, the film is quite remarkable. However, as so frequently happens with narratives that push in new directions, in an important way The Governess gets caught within the very paradigm it seeks to escape.
At the end of the film the governess has sublimated her sexuality and become a symbolically powerful figure; the symbolic father figure now willingly sits in front of her camera as her subject. The film then reaffirms a central element of the dominant manner in which Western culture posits the mind/body split, as in the long religious tradition wherein high states of spiritual development of the soul are premised upon denial of bodily pleasures. And Freud’s well-known formulation of psychoanalytic sublimation echoes the same tradition. The Governess, in seeking to critique both poles of the mind/body split ends up reaffirming the polarity. Why should this woman pay such a price? She denies herself the pleasures of the body in order to occupy a position of power at the film’s conclusion. Perhaps the final nude image of the son on the beach inadvertently raises the same question. Rosina is not there to see his body; only we do. The son’s nudity seems to indicate his anguish at his loss, but that image of his youthful, sexual body is lost on the governess. This may serve for the audience as a punishment for her rejecting him. Within the film’s narrative logic of the film, she could have had the pleasure of this body so perhaps in the end the narrative reaffirms the body guy after all.
The Governess bears comparison with the 1997 film Conceiving Ada, written and directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson. Both films feature intellectual women who are passionate about apparati related to image technology—the camera and computer—which belong to career fields that are still vastly male-dominated. The women in both films ultimately control the apparati by overcoming men who attempt to block them from progressing with their work. In Conceiving Ada, computer scientist and cyber-geneticist, Emmy, makes contact with the historical figure, Ada Byron Lovelace, daughter of the renown 19th century poet, Lord Byron. The film is based upon the fact that Ada Lovelace, a mathematical genius, developed the first computer program long before the realization of the computer. Like The Governess, the film represents Ada as a woman who discovers the pleasures of sex with intellectual men. As Ada puts it, “There were times when my passion for learning was confused with, well, passion,” and she unashamedly seduces the men who teach her what she wants to know. Like Rosina in The Governess, she delightedly shares sex and intellectual work with them. As such, this is another film written and directed by a woman that locates female sexual pleasure in the realm of the mind man as opposed to the body man.