copyright 2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 55, fall 2013

The hysteric, the mother, the natural gal:
male fantasies and male theories in films about Lincoln

by Deborah Tudor

The analysis of the film Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford, 1939) in the 1970 Cahiers du Cinéma article concentrates on a limited bundle of relations within the film, explicating them through a psychoanalytic model. In this essay, I would like to briefly conduct a thought experiment by exploring ways that subsequent developments in theory complicate the psychoanalytic gender model that the Cahiers du Cinéma critics use. To do this I will, trace some of the gender complexities across three Lincoln films, two released within a year: Young Mr. Lincoln and Abe Lincoln In Illinois (Cromwell, 1940) and the contemporary film Lincoln (Spielberg, 2012). This is not a refutation of the Cahiers’ article but rather a sketch of how gender relations around the mythologized fixture of Abraham Lincoln operate across several films and seven decades. By using some critical notions derived from the psychoanalytic field as used in popular culture, I will consider some alternate readings of relations among the categories of woman, law, nature. In addition, I will highlight the way that liminal states and images contained in the narrative of Young Mr. Lincoln provide a different spin on the Cahiers’ reading.         

The two early films develop different versions of an Abe Lincoln. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) focuses on the early career of Abraham Lincoln as a lawyer in Springfield Illinois. By creating a fictional trial where Lincoln successfully defends two young men wrongfully accused of murder, this film establishes the figure of a future president as a folksy, self-educated, clever man who pursues justice while undergoing revelations that force him to redefine concepts of right and wrong. As the Cahiers critique observes, the political dimension of Lincoln’s life, his primary defining characteristic as a historical figure, is pushed to the margins of the film to allow for the growth of a mythology, and politics itself is treated with disdain by characters. In contrast, Abe Lincoln in Illinois[1] [open endnotes in new window] concentrates on the early career of Lincoln as well, but extends the timeframe through the 1858 Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates during the campaign for Illinois senate seat,[2] ending with Lincoln’s farewell to Illinois as he heads to Washington. This film features a highly conflicted Lincoln, reluctant to take up an increasingly public life.

Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012)spotlights the political life of Abraham Lincoln, concentrating on the political machinations required to pass the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, and the relationship of this legislation to policies Lincoln’s administration pursued to end the Civil War. Lincoln depicts a man with a highly pragmatic approach to political activity to achieve a moral end, and one whose pursuit of the “right” is embedded deeply in his need to end the Civil War.

Both the earlier films contain subtexts about Lincoln’s development of a sense of public morals and duty, connecting this development to the influence of an abstract “Woman,” a concept that the Cahiers’ article uses as a spine for its analytic frame of Young Mr. Lincoln. In both films, the lost figure of Ann Rutledge, along with complicated absent and present forms of maternity foster a large part of this moral development. The Cahiers article’s use of Woman as an equivalence for Nature sets up a totalizing fantasy for gender in Young Mr. Lincoln. The positioning of women in Abe Lincoln in Illinois emphasizes the maternal and the idealized virgin who died young, Ann Rutledge. However, the figure of Mary Todd, Lincoln’s eventual wife, exists outside both those categories. The narrative identifies her as a negative pole in Lincoln’s life. Since Lincoln covers a later part of Lincoln’s life, Mary Todd Lincoln becomes the most significant female representation in that film, followed only by her dressmaker and companion, a former slave, Mrs. Keckley.

A more recent formulation of the Freudian field and popular culture by Slavoj Zizek (2005) proposes an alternative way of conceptualizing the phallogocentric realm. Derrida uses the term phallogocentric, which combines the words phallic and logocentric to describe a culture that is dominated by a logocentrism heavily marked by patriarchy. Instead of interpreting this phallogocentrism as a cultural operation that places woman outside of and excluded from the realm of law, Zizek offers a different scheme. He concludes that the oft-referenced “feminine secret, the eternally feminine” is typically considered the

“feminine subject that eludes the reign of …the phallogocentric reason, phallic function, and so on.”[3]

However, in his discussion of hysteria, he indicates a “complementary conclusion”: that the hysterical performance of woman is a “mask” with nothing behind it, and so does exist within the phallic function. Zizek offers an alternative to the claim that woman exists beyond phallogocentric regime. In his scheme, the eternal ineffable feminine—the what-lies-beyond the law—is a male fantasy.[4]

Of course he is not alone. Irigaray situates female masquerade as an attempt by a female subject to create a protective barrier around herself. As a woman who has no language to speak her body or her desires, the masquerade of femininity attempts to participate in man’s desire,[5] or in his fears. Historically, we see examples of coded language that do speak desire for many culturally marginalized groups, such as subcultural coding of jewelry placement or clothing accessories like handkerchiefs to express gay identity and desire. If the idea of masquerade is a projection of a male fantasy, perhaps best expressed as “women don’t know themselves, and cannot understand what is happening,” then the fantasy allows males to project their own desires or fears onto women.

Examples of this would include male interpretations of the images of women athletes, whose performance of their muscular bodies often elicits snickering comments about “dykes.” Watching the Women’s National Basketball Association games with a group of young men aptly demonstrated this to me a few years ago. Heterosexual women, of course, would presumably not want to appear powerful, athletic, or aggressive; therefore the men decide that they must be lesbians, projecting their own fantasies of what women should look like onto the athletes.

Furthermore, the men judge women who they see as appropriately feminine, who dress nicely and wear make up, as women putting themselves on show for men. It does not occur to males that women would enjoy clothing and makeup for their own sake; rather, they are “dressing to be noticed” and therefore must want the random attention of men in public. Discussions of these kinds of male fantasies often fall under the pop culture category of “mansplaining,” a rhetorical form in which the world, including gender, is explained from the man’s point of view, expressed as a transcendent, obvious truth. It is an organization of the world through masculine logic, which makes mansplaining a popular understanding of phallogocentrism.[6]

The ontological “explanation” of femininity as beyond Law, existing in Nature, is linked to the Cahiers’ analysis of law as proceeding from nature, a nature both signifying and signified by women in these films. Identifying these constructs as fantasies questions the entire stability of the phallocentric regime, in that if there is nothing out there beyond its limits, the organization of gender under such a regime is flawed. Further, a traditional psychoanalytic reading such as the one in Cahiers, could also be construed as a practice of male fantasy, reproducing the same positioning rather than seeking ways to challenge it. This is indeed the core point of a critique of psychoanalytic theory that has been active for several decades.

I now turn to specific relations discussed in the Cahiers article, extending the discussion across three films to consider the consequences of designating that analysis as patriarchal fantasy.


The developmental political or moral work of Abraham Lincoln in the two earlier films is closely linked with his relationships with women, notably those located in maternal positions and those located in a romanticized nature. As Cahiers article notes, in Young Mr. Lincoln, “Woman” (Cahiers: the “classic (banal) cultural analogy Nature—Woman, in Nature….”) is woven throughout the film, and also finds a primary significance in that

“the promotion of the river to the status of the woman corresponds to the Woman’s disappearance from the sequence.”[7]

Later in the article, the authors state that the River signifies a pledge between Lincoln and the Law.[8] Two women specifically provide Lincoln with a path between Nature and Law: Ann Rutledge and Mrs. Clay.

The initial interaction between Abe and a woman in Young Mr. Lincoln occurs when he obtains his first law book: Blackstone’s Commentaries. In an early New Salem scene, Mrs. Clay, the matriarch of a settler family passing through town, offers to trade a barrel of books left by her father to Abe for a bolt of cloth. This exchange of patrimony includes Blackstone’s Commentaries, which Abe handles reverently. Mrs. Clay has taken care of the books, but hasn’t read them, as we later learn she cannot read, and has no access therefore to Law. We next see the book when Abe is lying by the river,[9] reading and musing over his interpretation of the basic principle of law “right and wrong: that’s all there is to it.” This early, naïve characterization of law stops when Ann Rutledge enters the scene, interrupting his reading. The Cahiers’ authors note the importance of this scene within the overall dynamics of the film as one where the relationship of Abe with Ann (Woman in Nature) initially interrupts his communing with the Law.

This scene opens the subtext of Ann Rutledge’s loss as a central element in the development of Lincoln’s life ambitions, his sense of right and wrong, and his larger understanding of the law. According to Cahiers’ critics, after her death Ann is embodied in the River that mesmerizes Lincoln throughout the film, a river that holds his interest “as if it were a pretty girl” (dialogue). The river also becomes a “ratification of Lincoln’s contract with the Law.”[10] The River is associated with Ann, since the couple’s only meeting in the film occurs on the riverbank, but the river also represents change, and Lincoln’s forward movement: from New Salem to Springfield to Washington, from frontier settler and village merchant to country lawyer to politician to President.

This forward movement is accompanied by a recognition that the law is more than just right versus wrong, a naïve statement that young Abe makes. Blackstone’s Commentaries links culturally developed codes of law as an outgrowth of “natural law.” In the 19th century, natural law was considered to be a series of unchanging moral truths. A divine being, the creator of mankind, possessed of a demonstrable existence was the foundation of a belief system that founded divine and natural laws. Man’s faculty of reason allowed him to know and follow these moral truths, which were regarded as the foundation of both Christian beliefs and civil law.[11] Thus, nature as a creation of the divine, could be seen as a metaphor for the intricate yet demonstrable laws of Providence.

The film’s trial sequence foregrounds this question through the figure of Mrs. Clay as discussed below. The fact that a body of law exceeds such concepts moves it away from a relation with nature, a factor that complicates the reading of the river as an associated symbol of Lincoln’s status with respect to Law.

Several scenes demonstrate the Cahiers reading of nature and the river. In one, Ann and Lincoln converse briefly, and in their conversation, Abe answers a question with the phrase “I do.” Ann carries a basket of flowers, and the lighting is high key and soft, creating a type of visual tenderness echoed in the dialogue, emphasizing the fact that her flowers and his response mimic a wedding. The next scene shows Lincoln standing at Ann’s snowy grave by the river. He uses a stick to determine his future, and it falls toward Ann’s grave, which means he leaves for Springfield and the Law. Ann’s spectral guidance comes from a realm far beyond the phallocentric and indicates an enduring and fixed fantasy of Ann that Lincoln carries with him. In the background, the river flows, with its connotations of change and forward movement providing a contradiction to the stasis of male fantasy. Cahiers interprets this scene as a woman/nature symbiosis that pushes Lincoln onto his journey into the realm of patriarchal Law. Although the setting looks deeply wintry, Lincoln carries flowers, indicating that the time frame of this scene operates within another liminality the end of winter/beginning of Spring and the end of New Salem/beginning of Springfield law career.

The clear association of woman with nature does not suggest an existence beyond the realm of the symbolic or of law, as “nature” itself is a historically determined construct. So aligning women with nature doesn’t place them outside of a masculine realm. Of course, it’s no longer a masculine realm if it includes women as well, indicating the instability of psychoanalytic theories deployed in the popular culture field.

Abe Lincoln In Illinois depicts a more extended relationship between Ann Rutledge and Lincoln in this film, which includes numerous fictional scenes of Lincoln’s career as a shopkeeper in New Salem. His first encounter with Ann occurs when a load of pigs he is ferrying to New Orleans on a flatboat escapes. He catches one in front of her. They exchange introductions and later renew acquaintance when Lincoln returns to New Salem to live. His first day in the town, he fights and defeats a bully who was bothering Ann as she was managing her father’s tavern. Ann is already “spoken for,” however, so Lincoln watches her from afar.

Ann receives perfect and perfectly lovely, soft three-point portrait lighting in these scenes, becoming a romanticized ideal. Her boyfriend leaves to work elsewhere, and Abe finally declares his love. While Ann is considering this offer, she collapses at a square dance, signaling the onset of her fatal illness. She is laid on the floor, wearing a white dress, with flowers in her hair, looking exactly like a virginal corpse. A deathbed scene follows where she enjoins Abe to think of nothing but “winning that election.” The implicit goad of Ann Rutledge to Abe’s ambitions and public political life is here made explicit and Ann’s spectral presence will return in this film to further guide Lincoln onto the path to the White House and toward marriage with Mary Todd.

Ann has a dual association with nature in Abe Lincoln In Illinois. The lighting gives her an ethereal air but her two initial scenes, one with escaped pig and one at a fight outside a tavern, situate her in the earthier side of Nature. Additionally, Ann has an element of labor to her image, since we do see that she helps run her father’s tavern, and that he leaves her in charge when he is absent. All of these elements position Ann in a more complex way than does Young Mr. Lincoln. However it is her ethereal idealized aspect that falls into the “what lies beyond” of the phallogocentric, a male fantasy of/for Lincoln and the audience. The “earthy” part of this representation, especially that part associated with labor, speaks both to a material understanding of white women’s position on the Nineteenth century frontier and to the idealized fantasy. It is a superficial acknowledgement of labor but also a part of the idealized labor contained in the pioneer woman spirit: woman as helpmeet.

Ann’s final return in the film occurs after Abe has jilted Mary Todd. He returns to a now-abandoned New Salem and in his mind’s eye sees her walking through a field. His stepmother’s admonition “He that doeth the will of God abideth forever” is heard on the soundtrack. Here Ann is joined to the maternal, something that does not occur in Young Mr. Lincoln. Her image, her meaning for Lincoln, shifts positions: angelic yet earthy young woman, woman as labor and tavern keeper, angelic dead virgin, woman as nature/mother together sending him back to Mary and onto the road to Washington.

The Cahiers article also situates the Clay family women as farmwomen standing in Nature. They dress plainly and work hard on their family homestead. They are primarily seen in nature/frontier settings: a covered wagon, porch of their farmhouse, camping outside Springfield. For example, in Young Mr. Lincoln, the only indoor scenes featuring the Clay women are those that occur during the trial of the two sons. They are also associated with labor, productivity, self-reliance, and the formation of the family.

Lincoln and the Law

By contrast, in Spielberg’s Lincoln, the law is a predominant theme woven through the narrative, which highlights the relation of the “moral right” to legality and political manipulations. The Emancipation Proclamation is discussed in one Cabinet scene and Lincoln notes that it may not legally stand if the war ends before the Thirteenth Amendment is passed. Lincoln explains that he was using a war powers act to deprive the enemy of useful property, i.e., the slaves, and if peace is declared, that action may be abrogated.

Through his Secretary of State, Seward, Lincoln hires “skulky men” to do the actual vote trading and distribution of patronage. The pragmatism of this action cynically reinforces a false distinction between morality and politics: that to do the right thing, one must be willing to be underhanded. The scenes of the “skulky men” wheedling lame duck Congressmen for yay votes on the Amendment through job promises are set up as humorous interludes featuring physical comedy and light-hearted fiddle music. By positioning the audience to find these scenes amusing, the film shuffles aside the potential to examine the serious nature of doing politics through patronage and corruption.

Through sequences like these, and the infamous Lincoln storytelling scenes in the script, this film does its own work to mythologize Lincoln. Lincoln’s stories are generally humorous, such as a story about a talking parrot he recites to petitioners from Missouri, or funny and vulgar, like a story about an Englishman who hangs a portrait of George Washington in his water closet. Such recitals lend strength to the popular myth of Lincoln as a folksy man using legal and quasi-legal tactics to produce the right, regardless of whether it allows misgovernance in the name of morality.

The maternal realm

In Young Mr. Lincoln, the maternal is clearly associated with Abigail Clay and her daughters-in-law. Sarah, the elder daughter-in-law is married to Matt Clay and has a baby. The younger woman, Cassie is engaged and eager to be married to Adam, the younger son. Some ruffians, including a deputy of Springfield, bother Sarah at the parade, and later that night, the deputy and the two brothers fight. The deputy’s friend, John Cass, jumps into the fistfight, but White ends up dead. Cass accuses the sons, displaying a knife that he claims is the murder weapon. The sheriff arrives, and asks Mrs. Clay which one of her sons killed White. She refuses to answer.

Mrs. Clay projects a stately serenity alternating with panic when questioned about the identity of the son that killed Deputy White. She can’t choose, of course, and much is made visually and dialogically of her struggle. Abe doesn’t want her to be forced to tell because, of course, she is Mother, as such cannot be expected to choose between her sons because that would violate natural Law. He paints her as a simple woman during the trial, capitalizing on the positioning of class and gender to create a kind of condescending masculinized empathy in the all-male jurors. The empathy clearly rests upon affirming the class status of Mrs. Clay as a poor, uneducated farmwoman. This separates her from the figure of Mary Todd, who sits with Steven Douglas in the spectators’ gallery.

Before the trial, Lincoln tells Mrs. Clay that she reminds him of his deceased mother Nancy Hanks Lincoln. These three women clearly stand on the side of the family and reproduction, and the narrative emphasizes their multiple relations with laws of the family and laws of nature, the double sign under which motherhood resides.

Mary Todd lingers in figurative margins waiting silently for Lincoln to notice her. The film, Young Mr. Lincoln excludes her from the category of Woman in Nature by associating her with the gentry, and with her sister’s wealth. Lincoln treats her with a type of polite disregard, nodding and responding politely when they meet in town, acceding to her invitation to a dance, and awkwardly dancing with her. However, when they retire to the porch from the dance, Lincoln falls into a reverie while gazing upon the river, which primarily symbolizes the spirit of Ann Rutledge and the Law according to Cahiers. Mary moves to a bench in the background, ignored. Accepting this abstract category of Woman limits the reading of the film to one that positions woman/Woman in a predetermined and fairly stable category, the implications of which are not considered in the Cahiers analysis.

The maternal appears silently in yet another goodbye, after Abe is elected to represent New Salem in the Illinois legislature. Abe has apparently been boarding with a judge, and as they carry out his trunk, he shares a silent farewell with the judge’s wife, whose neat but plain dress, and hair pulled into a bun visually echo the stepmother’s earlier farewell.

Young Mr. Lincoln associates Mrs. Clay, her daughters and Ann with nature but also with labor, productivity, self-reliance, and (as noted by most writers) the formation of the family. The Clay family women are imbricated in a web of relations among Law, Nature and Gender as noted by the theorists. They dress plainly and work hard on their family homestead. They are primarily seen in nature/frontier settings: a covered wagon, porch of their farmhouse, camping outside Springfield. The only indoor scenes featuring the Clay women are those that occur during the trial of the two sons.

However, it is a specific construct of Nature that they occupy in Young Mr. Lincoln, one which differs vastly from, for example, the 1970s conception of “the natural woman” embedded in a web of notions of alternative culture, not the Nineteenth century pioneer ethos. The 1970s “natural woman” was an outgrowth of 1960s hippie mentality. This style was a very simple look, eschewing artificial adornments like heavy makeup, and breaking conventions by letting body hair grow. It was one of several “looks” that can be found in fashion magazines of this era, in contrast with the disco look that featured more extravagant clothing, makeup, and hairstyles. This concept does associate women with Nature but as an alternative to the proper bourgeois woman whose images alternated between homemaker and the career woman. While the 1970s natural woman is closely associated with a retreat from bourgeois civilization, the 19th century natural woman of Young Mr. Lincoln and Abe Lincoln In Illinois is associated heavily with white civilization taming a savage land through reproduction (the maternal realm).

Mary Todd Lincoln

This leaves one woman to consider: Mary Todd. She receives scant attention in Young Mr. Lincoln, remaining on the periphery of the narrative. She is omitted from the category of woman in nature by virtue of her association with the gentry and her sister’s wealth. Mary Todd is away from her family home but ensconced in a branch of her paternal family, leaving her neither without nor within the patriarchal family structure. She does not labor, and through the richness and luxury of her sister’s home, she is associated with the gentry and by extension, with slave holders in the South. The only black faces in this film are servants in Todd’s sister’s residence, and their presence recalls the absence of overt mentions of slavery.

Mary Todd initiates every interaction with Lincoln, and all are executed awkwardly. They meet at the Fourth of July parade; Lincoln is polite but oblivious to Mary’s sidelong glances and attempt to engage him in conversation. Mary invites him to her sister’s house for a formal dance. He accepts but lingers outside the ballroom to exchange jokes with some men, which results in Mary asking him to dance. They dance poorly together, and a removal to the porch results in Abe staring in fascination at that river, presumably thinking of change and of promise lost in Ann while Mary sits ignored in the background. Visually this shot positions her as tangential to Abe’s calling, to a loving relationship with him, tangential to his progress through an understanding of law and questions of right and wrong. However, she is also disassociated with the natural realm, which in Young Mr. Lincoln seems a precondition for aiding the male protagonist onto his ordained path. This exception implicitly labels Mary Todd as “wrong” for Lincoln.

Public understanding of Mary Todd Lincoln in the first four decades of the 20th Century would have informed such a portrayal of her “wrongness” as a wife for Abe, and audience reception of that role. Mary Todd Lincoln was widely regarded in the public memory as “insane,” an image that doubtless was influenced by her 1875 insanity trial, which led to her commitment to an institution in Batavia, Illinois. The existence and timing of the possible onset of a mental illness is an open question. Some date the existence of mental illness to that 1875 commitment while some contemporary acquaintances’ letters mention tendencies to mental illness existing prior to Lincoln’s assassination. Benjamin French, who oversaw the redecorating of the White House during the Lincoln administration, stated,

“I think the tragical (sic) death of her husband has made her crazyer (sic) than she used to be.”[12]

Her sister Emilie noted that Mary spoke of visions of her dead son Willie as early as 1863.[13] Psychiatrists have written 20th century defenses of her, attributing her behavior to excessive grief from losses beginning with the death of her mother when Mary was six years old, the deaths of her sons, and finally triggered by Lincoln’s death. Other attempts at diagnoses of Mary Todd Lincoln exist, including depression, migraine-triggered hallucinations, syphilis, and psychosis. The possible existence of an insane wife became part of the Lincoln mythology.

In Abe Lincoln In Illinois, Mary Todd occupies much more screen time, and the film represents her as a somewhat prickly, aggressive young Kentucky “belle” who knows her own mind, a bit like Scarlett O’Hara in the previous year’s Gone With the Wind. The privilege and wealth remain, indicated by the fact that dialogue reveals she brought her sister’s ball gown to her “all the way from Louisville.” Unlike the Mary Todd of Young Mr. Lincoln, this Mary seems ambitious and sassy. Ruth Gordon gives a mannered performance, endowing Mary with strength of will, using extremely precise bodily gestures that yield to less controlled ones in moments of frustration.

Mary’s aggression toward men and toward Lincoln in particular annoys her sister, who obviously wants to marry her to Stephen Douglas. But unlike Mary in Young Mr. Lincoln, this one engages Lincoln in a conversation about his dead mother, Nancy Hanks, invoking the realm of the maternal while continuing to invoke notions of power.

Her search for power emerges through Mary’s dialogue. She states that she does not want a typical bourgeois marriage, but one in which she can aid a man to great success, preferably on the national stage. She wants to “shape a new life, and will shape Lincoln and make him face his power and fulfill his destiny.” This mixture of motherhood and aggressive ambition introduces a theme of Mary’s instability into the text. After hearing this speech, Mary’s sister Elizabeth calls her “one shade from madness” for harboring such ambitions. Associating ambition and aggression with mental instability fits in with the nineteenth century thinking about women’s mental and physical disorders. The label of madness would be applied off and on to Mary Todd throughout her life, through histories and through popular culture. It is certainly one that Steven Spielberg draws upon when he weaves the themes of the maternal and madness together in his recent film Lincoln. I am not going to argue the historicity of this element of Todd’s biography but rather to pull it into the rapidly escalating series of discourses that surround her cinematic representation.

Ruth Gordon in Abe Lincoln In Illinois and Sally Field in Lincoln bring distinct star images to their performances. Gordon’s reviews in films of this era noted her vivid onscreen presence, with New York Times reviewer Frank Nugent noting that he believed camerapeople did not light her performance in Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet; that instead, she brought her “own incandescence” to the screen.[14] Nugent commented that her Mary Todd upstaged Raymond Massey in scenes, with her “eyes crackling with cold ambition.”[15] Certainly, her Mary Todd becomes a focus of attention in her scenes, and this energy and personal charisma certainly helped construct a particular version of Mary: aggressive, ambitious, and for a woman of the 19th Century, “forward” in social settings.

Sally Field brings a different image to her portrayal of Lexington belle turned First Lady Mary Todd. Field has played a variety of roles, with several Southern women prominent among them: the working class Norma Rae, farm woman Edna Spaulding in Places in the Heart, and M’Lynn, the “steeliest of the Steel Magnolias, another woman prone to anger and frustration at the things she cannot change, and who has trouble maintaining proper appearances in grief.”[16] Her resumé of strong Southern women, a definite part of her star image, did not make her a shoo-in for the casting. She had been attached to the Lincoln project for several years, but when the male lead dropped out, her casting was in jeopardy. On the David Letterman show, Field explained that she had to fight to retain her role as Mary after Liam Neeson, originally slated to play Lincoln, dropped out of the project. Spielberg is said to have thought her too old for the part.[17]

In Abe Lincoln In Illinois, Mary’s aggressive behavior escalates in impassioned speeches about Lincoln’s role in public life, discussions that make him distinctly uncomfortable. They become engaged, even though Lincoln is shown to be unhappy about his choice. Finally he jilts Mary, saying.

“if her poor little soul wants greatness, she’d better marry Steve Douglas.”

Following this scene, Lincoln returns to New Salem and experiences the auditory and visual memories of Ann and his stepmother that make him return to ask Mary’s forgiveness. God, mother, Ann in all her complexity, and Mary’s active agenda for Abe combine to put Lincoln’s feet on a path to “greatness.”

Mary continues to express her frustrations with political process in rather violent outbursts. On the night of the Congressional election, Mary becomes highly agitated while at headquarters. She is distraught at the wait for the returns, and makes wild claims about Lincoln hating her and all her friends. He sends her home. Mary in Abe Lincoln In Illinois exists in the phallic realm, but this scene explicitly shows her expulsion from politics to the realm of home and family. The film’s script heavily emphasizes behaviors that reduce Mary Todd to the level of a conniving woman who seeks reflected greatness in a man. However, it is her political perspicacity that identifies great potential in Abraham Lincoln, potential he seems to wish to deny, constantly claiming that he just wants to be left alone. However, the implicit notion here is that her presence inside the realm of law is unnatural and leads to her expulsion and confinement in the male fantasy of feminine madness.

Mary Todd Lincoln in 2012

Lincoln presents a version of Mary as a wife who can parse her husband’s dreams, a political person who takes on the House of Representatives over the renovation budget of the public White House, a private political advisor who urges Lincoln to use his political capital on something other than the Thirteenth Amendment, a mother who is highly overprotective to some sons and indifferent to the youngest, and finally a woman who is labeled “selfish” and “crazy” due to her intemperate and lengthy period of active grieving over their dead son Willie. This maternal aspect constitutes the central portion of Mary’s relation to “Nature,” but like Mary Todd in Young Mr. Lincoln, she is external to Nature itself and does not evoke the realm of the pastoral.

Our first glimpse of Mary in this film comes near the beginning in the Lincolns’ bedroom where she is getting ready for bed and listening to Abe recount a dream where he was alone on a ship. He rebukes himself for bothering her and she answers that she does not want to be spared a thing. She refers to herself as a

“useless woman…a soothsayer, not to be trusted.”

She refers to her awful headaches that are a result of a carriage accident, an event she considers to have been an assassination attempt on Lincoln. He disagrees.

The dialogue here leaves Mary balanced between the world of dreams, hysterical illness (her headaches), soothsaying and the world of political and personal observation. She interprets an accident as an assassination attempt while Lincoln dismisses that notion.[18] Are all of these dimensions outside the phallogocentric? Typically we associate political activity and analysis with reasoned argument, with power, thereby placing it into the phallic realm.

Like the Mary Todd in Young Mr. Lincoln, she is not located in nature but primarily in interiors, this time in the White House and in two other scenes, in the visitors’ gallery of the House of Representatives. Once near the film’s end, she and Lincoln take a carriage drive in a park, but otherwise, she is seen indoors. The White House itself is a liminal area with its public and personal (family, private) areas blurred together. Young Tad Lincoln rides a goat cart through a corridor filled with political petitioners. Mary and son Robbie have a reunion in that same hallway. Lincoln interrupts meetings to discuss Tad’s problems. Family and political life are intertwined spatially and Mary Lincoln is a pivotal figure in that connection.

Mary Lincoln displays her motherly side in a scene where she greets Robbie, returned from law school, with admonitions that he is not eating enough, and she sends Tad to fetch Lincoln for the reunion. A darker side of her maternal nature is exhibited in a scene just prior to a White House reception. She lingers in her dead son’s room, and Lincoln seeks her out. This scene clearly reaffirms the association of Mary with death and dementia, as did her first scene in the film, where she speaks of assassination and of her “craziness.” Here though, she mentions her guilt over the child’s death and her inability to stop grieving.

Lincoln’s work to pass the amendment goes against Mary’s wishes. She accuses him of wasting his political capital, and when he postpones peace talks with the Confederacy, of exposing their elder son to danger by prolonging the war. The counterargument, that this is Lincoln’s moral duty, operates against his wife’s wishes, but in a way that at least indicates that Mary possesses some type of political awareness, since she understands the fact that the Amendment represents a very long shot in political terms. Interestingly, however, the moral duty of Lincoln here opposes the maternal instinct, or natural instinct, of Mary. Unlike in Young Mr. Lincoln or Abe Lincoln In Illinois, in this film the “natural” world of woman and family do not support a movement toward larger and more profound moral concerns.

This scene’s concerns return when Lincoln and Mary argue over Robbie’s intentions to join the Army. Lincoln has made him an adjutant, far from the fighting but Mary still worries that he could die anyway: of typhus, a stray bullet, an armory accident. The conversation turns heated as she accuses Lincoln of hating Robbie because he “trapped you in a marriage that has given you nothing but grief.” Lincoln rebukes her for this statement, and the conversation spirals out of control with Mary screaming that he should just go ahead and put her in the madhouse. Mary performs a scene of abasement as the argument escalates. She collapses on the floor doubled over, and in her hoop skirt, looks all balled up at the feet of the very tall Lincoln. At one point, Lincoln agrees that committing her would have been better for everyone’s sake. He calls her grief selfish, and the visual image of her huddled into herself certainly bespeaks the notion of a figure focused on internal desires and issues.

This scene reinforces the general public view of Mary Todd that emerged in the late 19th Century after her commitment to an institution in 1875 as an insane woman who drove Lincoln cruelly with her passions, an evaluation that places a woman at the center of a man’s troubles. She is reprimanded for not being a loving, giving spouse or mother. And this judgment is highlighted in a later scene between Lincoln and Mrs. Keckley, where Mary’s companion and dressmaker claims the Maternal: she is a woman whose son died wearing Union blue, telling Lincoln,

“that is what I am to the Nation”—a war mother who gave her son for the cause.”

The political Mary Todd and the nation’s First Housewife    

At the reception in Lincoln, Mary stands in the receiving line, greeting senators and representatives and giving a special bit of attention to Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). She does not flirt but confronts Stevens coating her words in Southern Belle sweetness. She thanks Stevens for his attentions to her household budgets and the ensuing conversation reveals that her accounts were examined closely for evidence of malfeasance. She retorts with a description of how the Congress had let the White House run down—mushrooms growing in the rooms, everything in squalor—musing that perhaps they thought such conditions were appropriate to the “prairie primitives” she and Abe were thought to be.

This comment makes sense within the narrative. The Lincolns did come from a less settled area of the country. However, there was considerable binding of the terms of women and Native Americans, or “savages,” to borrow the nineteenth century term, as early as 1830s. While visiting the United States in 1831, Alexis de Toqueville described both women and Native Americans as isolated communities surrounded and circumscribed by white culture.[19] Mary Lincoln’s reference to “prairie primitives” also evokes a trope of nineteenth century thinking that can be found in advertisements of the time linking women with “primitive” Native Americans, which supports the notion that women are just primitive men, although with differences. Native Americans were driven off their lands and to eventual decimation or confinement in reservations. Clearly, this linkage between “woman” and “primitive” emerges from the cultural work of a white patriarchal society defending its boundaries and privilege.

Mary’s use of the phrase, “prairie primitives” resonates with a number of issues then: regional, racial, and gender conflict. This exchange places Mary in a liminal state: housewife but also public politician restoring a national building to livability and dignity. This connection indicates again the heavy ideological work of a culture of white masculine privilege that desperately wants to assign women and people of color to some vague realm elsewhere. Instead of arguing this ideological work through the by the model of psychoanalytic critique in Cahiers article, I would argue that Mary in Young Mr. Lincoln is not Woman, not an abstract phenomenon whose existence in the text leads Lincoln to an understanding of the Law, but instead she is a political person in her own right, albeit in a limited sphere of influence.

Given Thaddeus Stevens’ central position in the progress of the 13th Amendment, a scene in the House as the bill is considered for passage provides another insight into Mary Lincoln’s positioning. She and her dressmaker/companion, the ex-slave Mrs. Keckley, are seated in the balcony observing the speeches. The Balcony is of course the only space where women may appear in the House, an already marginal space. Mary looks down at the spectacle. Stevens apparently returns that look. Familiarity with shot-reverse-shot conventions and their relation to narrative could lead us to conclude that he is looking back at Mary.

However, he is really looking at Mrs. Keckley, gauging her reaction to the politicking. This is confirmed by Steven’s point of view shot of Mrs. Keckley leaving after he makes his statement that he does not believe in full equality for Negroes, just equality before the law. This is a public retreat from his earlier position advocating for full equality for Negroes. Stevens knows that he will be called to account for this, but he acts in this way as a pragmatic move to achieve the goal of passing the 13th Amendement. A scene near the end of the film reveals another reason for Stevens’ sensitivity to Mrs. Keckley’s response. He is engaged in a relationship with his Black common-law wife Lydia Smith, who is known to the world as his “housekeeper.” We see the two of them in bed, poring over the official Amendment that he brings home as a type of “gift” to her.


Exploring the representations of the women in three Lincoln films offers a glimpse into ways that a model of gender relations does not have to boot women into the “other” category but can fruitfully discusses their representation as male fantasies. Analyses of specific filmic texts can demonstrate that a complex and shifting matrix of stereotypical cultural ideas about the nature of femininity and nature impinge upon the construction of the male protagonist in multiple ways. There are alternatives to the psychoanalytic model used in the Cahiers article. Despite the flexibility of gender relations and potential for open readings of gender even in mainstream cultural productions, the positioning of women tends to consist of a set of interlocking male fantasies. Female characters act as support, goad, conscience, romantic ideal, political advisor, soothsayer, mother and housewife. The female characters straddle Nature, Law, and Motherhood in all three films despite the lengthy time gap between the release of the first two films and the release of Lincoln in 2012.

These qualities relate to the “main narrative themes” of all three movies. In Young Mr. Lincoln, Lincoln is called to a great destiny, which is memorialized in the closing shot of the film. Abe Lincoln In Illinois presents a different but related type of call: one to a public career full of achievements on a scale much larger than Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln depicts the President as a pragmatic man, a politician who is willing to compromise to achieve great things, specifically the passage of the 13th Amendment. Taking these three themes in order, the character of Mary Todd must be shown as a proper helpmate to a “great man” in Young Mr. Lincoln, a strong, aggressive woman who will shore up her man’s vacillating weakness in Abe Lincoln In Illinois, and in Lincoln, a confidante, a domestic advisor who worries over Lincoln’s use of his political capital.

The persistence of these fantasies indicates the ideological work done to stabilize the classical psychoanalytic theory, as it struggles to preserve the realm of Law for males alone. Even though the Cahiers applications of theory to popular culture intends a critique of cultural practice, it ends up reinforcing some of the male fantasies prevalent in that popular culture.

Hollywood’s recirculation of tired mainstream stereotypes about women operates in the boardroom and on the screen. The number of women producers and directors has not increased enough to make a critical difference in the types of films and types of representation available to audiences. The reductionist portrait of Mary in Spielberg’s film exists in a Hollywood ecosystem of female marginalization and stereotyping. In 2013, only one summer movie had female headliners: The Heat, starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. Blockbuster movies for the past few years provided few supporting females roles and generally limited them to sexy, cat-suit-wearing, non-super powered women (The Black Widow in The Avengers, whose very name is a female cliché) or girlfriends in need of protection (Pepper Potts in Iron Man). Granted, Potts is the nominal head of Stark Industries, but most of her time is spent enduring various forms of peril. Star Trek Into Darkness added one more female character in Carol Marcus, but inserted a gratuitous underwear scene just to appeal to young male audiences.[20] The other female character, Lt. Uhura, did join some action scenes, but was reduced to starting a petty relationship squabble with her boyfriend while they were on a dangerous mission, a scene that undermined the character’s professionalism.

Increased attention to the historicity of Mary Todd Lincoln in the script, could have deepened the representation of her role in the White House and in the family. This was a woman who endured a lifelong series of personal losses at a time when women’s only outlets for grief lay in domestic pursuits. She faced public scorn as First Lady from a Washington public who saw her as a frontier woman lacking social graces and bourgeois good taste. While myth and movies put the blame for the Lincolns’ troubled marriage onto her shoulders, historians acknowledge that Lincoln contributed his share to the marriage’s rough spots.

Spielberg is mythologizing history and Abraham Lincoln as well, but it’s a mythologization that aligns him with a pivotal moment in history. I am not claiming that Mary’s character needs to be pumped up into some courageous heroine leading the charge for the anti-slavery movement, but perhaps the script could have dug a little deeper in an effort to avoid mythologizing Mary in a way that diminishes her humanity. Indeed, Lincoln oftenfalls into the mythological trap of reducing Mary to “Crazy Lady in the White House,” while Abe Lincoln In Illinois creates an aggressive, “non-womanly” (to use an archaic phrase) Mary, and Young Mr. Lincoln creates a soft, passive, supportive Mary. I can speculate and hope that a women screenwriter or director might have given Mary more complexity.

The entrenched Hollywood power structure has not received the message that women will spend their money on films with female lead characters, or films with significant female second leads. When The Devil Wears Prada was released in 2009, Fox executives were shocked at the five-day box office figure of $40 million. The total so surprised Fox's president of distribution that he remarked he "never thought it would be this big," since he'd never seen a "predominately female movie open quite that large."[21] Articles reporting on box office for The Heat reported on this phenomenon of the underserved female audience.[22] Clearly, neither Freud nor Hollywood can really answer the question, “what do women want?”

Examining the assumptions behind the psychoanalytic critique leads toward a more materialist, historicized understanding of representation. That in itself is not a new argument but a reworking of an earlier attempt to deconstruct masculinity. The Cahiers article cannot be dismissed out of hand but credit should be given to its methodological rigor and attention to the structures that produce mythologized images. However, in the 21st century, reducing women to a set of discourses serves to prop up not only an ingrained sexist production system but also dangerously sexist and racist political practices here in the United States and around the world.


Editor’s query: You had in the text in parentheses the name Emerson.  It appeared twice.  Is that a source you used for historical information?  You could mention that in the now empty footnote 1.  I do not want to have to change all the footnote numbers in the text and here, so if you add reference information, I will add notes in as 12b, etc. after the original footnote number and before the next as they stand now.

1. You have a footnote no. 1 in the text.  You could replace it or use this slot for acknowledgments. [return to text]

2. The debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas occurred in the 1858 Illinois campaign for the U.S. Senate. The primary contested issue was slavery. Douglas, a Democrat, was a proponent of Sovereignty, a policy that allowed individual states to choose whether or not to allow slavery. Lincoln opposed this philosophy, stating that the Union of states must act as one on this issue.

Commentary from the August 26, 1858 Alton Illinois Weekly Courier named Lincoln as the winner of the debate, and reported great jubilation “bonfires on every corner” celebrating Lincoln’s debate win. Douglas won the Senate election but Lincoln defeated him for the Presidency in 1860. Newspaper quotations from the Lincoln Library at Northern Illinois University.
http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/cgi-bin/philologic/getobject.pl?c.2271:1.lincoln Accessed August 20, 2013.

3. Zizek, Slavoj. Interrogating the Real. Rex Butler and Scott Stephens, trans. London:
Continuum, 2005. 66

4. Ibid.          

5. Irigaray, Luce. The Sex That is Not One. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985. 133-4.

6. I’m not claiming that these male views are universal, just offering them as examples of the way female masquerade operates a male fantasy.

7. Editors, Cahiers du Cinema. “John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln.” Cahiers du Cinema.
(August 1970), no. 223 and translated in Screen (Autumn 1972), 13:5. 22.

8. _______30. NEEDS REF

9. Before 1870, no state required a lawyer to attend law school prior to sitting a bar exam, and only around half of the states required any formal preparation at all before taking the exam. Informal reading such as that depicted in the film, would be considered sufficient preparation to sit the bar exam. Alfred Z. Reed, Training for the Public Profession of the Law New York, (Original Publisher Unknown), 1921. Fn. 246-247. Qtd. In Mark Bailey, “Early legal Education in the United States: Natural Law Theory and Law as Moral Science.” Journal of Legal Education. Vol 48, No. 3. 311-328

10. Ibid.

11. Bailey, Mark. Op. cit. 322-323.

12. Emerson, Jason. Mary Lincoln's Insanity Case : A Documentary History. University of Illinois Press, 2012. 10 September 2013 <http://www.myilibrary.com?ID=430504>

13. Brust, James M. “A Psychiatrist Looks at Mary Lincoln.” In Williams, Frank J.; Burkhimer, Michael. Mary Lincoln Enigma, The : Historians on America's Most Controversial First Lady. Southern Illinois University Press, 2012. 10 September 2013 <http://www.myilibrary.com?ID=372310>

14. Nugent, Frank. “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet.” (review) The New York Times. 24 February, 1940. http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9E00E2D71E31E43ABC4B51DFB466838B659EDE Accessed 8 September 2013.

15. ______”Abe Lincoln in Illinois.” (review) The New York Times. 23 February 1940.
http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9E00E2D71E31E43ABC4B51DFB466838B659EDE Accessed 8 September 2013.

16. Dean, Michelle. “Reconsidering Mary.” The New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2012/11/reconsidering-mary-sally-field-in-lincoln.html. Accessed 9 september 2013.

17. _____”Saslly Field had to fight for her role in Lincoln”. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/08/sally-field-fought-mary-todd-lincoln-video_n_2643895.html. Accessed 29 August 2013.

18. I have named Mary’s headaches “hysterical” because they operate here in the context of a common popular culture trope of 19th Century medicine that linked women’s illnesses to hysteria. Feminist historians have discussed how women’s reproductive systems became the focus of nineteenth century medicine, producing a morbid interest in ways that “fallen wombs” and other diagnoses of the time generated “hysterical” illnesses such as headaches, melancholy and other frailties associated with women.

19. Marcellus, Jane. “Nervous Women and Noble Savages: The Romanticized ‘Other’ in Nineteenth Century Patent Medicine Advertising.” Journal of Popular Culture 41:5 (September 2008) 795.

20. ______, “Damon Lindelof Admits Alice Eve Underwear Scene in Star Trek Was Gratuitous”. Huffington Post 21 May 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/21/damon-lindelof-alice-eve-underwear-scene-star-trek_n_3314471.html. Accessed 24 May 2013.

21. Hare, Breeanna. “Yes, Hollywood, Women Do Go To Movies.” CNN Entertainment http://www.cnn.com/2009/SHOWBIZ/Movies/12/04/women.audience.box.office/
Accessed 30 August 2013.

22. Zeitchik, Steven. “The Heat Box-Office Success: How Groundbreaking Is It?” Los Angeles Times http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jul/01/entertainment/la-et-mn-heat-box-office-melissa-mccarthy-20130630Accessed 1 July 2013.

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