JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

A brute.

A beauty-lover.

Body language of patriarchal authority and the dependent female's subservience.

Burrows and his friends in a bar where they plan revenge. The boy's club exerts its social power.

We know the Brute is bad, but is the film an anti-racist text?

The Romantic Hero.

The outsider and the waif.

 

 

 

Men's options under capitalism

Two men, a brute and an effeminate beauty-lover, "get a virgin." That is what I see as the sexual plot of Broken Blossoms. What does that mean? What is the power of such a plot? Why did Griffith construct his story that way? First of all, their slum environment, brutality, and opium smoking cast the male protagonists as Others. Griffith safely assigns perversity to other races and to the poor. Onto the working class are displaced Griffith's unconscious, artistic insights about the problems of the nuclear family under capitalism, an understanding he never could have admitted to since he was very much the patriarch, a man who fondly recalled the paternalistic and militaristic values of the Old South and who always had a loving eye for pretty young women.[9][open endnotes in new window]

In fact, the film presents two key moments of men's lives under capitalism. A man can be socially successful and conventionally masculine, or he can cultivate his sensitivity and imaginative capacity and live as an outsider. Since the last century, middle-class men have had as a model of emotional success either being the "breadwinner" and thus possessor of a home, wife, and family or of being a "free-spirited" (in fact, petit-bourgeois) rebel, usually an artist or intellectual.

Broken Blossoms utilizes and heightens this contrast between these two emotional options traditionally open to middle-class men. It reduces the outlines of these two kinds of male roles to a schematized emblematic form, and it displaces the whole "problem" of masculinity onto a story about the lives of the very poor. The film is thus particularly useful to us as feminist critics to show how popular art transmits patriarchal assumptions, for the roles of the two major male characters not only set out two contrasting sides of a single sexual-political configuration, but the film also makes the emotional implications of each kind of role totally explicit.

The figure of Burrows represents conventional notions of masculinity as enacted by a socially successful man. Within that formula, the corollary to a "real man's" aggressively taking what he can in the social and economic world is his "wearing the pants" at home. That is, he is the boss or the possessor of a wife and family, and his woman must always know her place. In Broken Blossoms, Battling Burrows seemingly has no wife, only a daughter. Yet in the figure of Lucy are condensed multiple notions of women's servitude, dependency and helplessness, and reception of sexual abuse.

Women's role in the nuclear family under capitalism was classically described by Frederick Engels using the metaphor of prostitution.[10] Across class lines and cultures and across historical periods, we have sold our bodies for sustenance. Furthermore, the ideological compensations given to "good" women in Western culture—the romantic love myth and the courtly "woman- on-a-pedestal" or Victorian "wife-as-moral-focus" myth—are, as Kate Millet wrote,

"grants which the male concedes out of his total power. Both have the effect of obscuring the patriarchal character of Western culture and, in their general tendency to attribute impossible virtues to women, have ended by confining them in a narrow and often remarkably constricted sphere of behavior."[11]

Symbolically, in Broken Blossoms, Lucy functions as the Good Wife. But what is most daring about this film is that it pushes Engels' metaphor of prostitution, used to describe the way women are possessed in the nuclear family, one step further. Broken Blossoms' metaphor equates the possession of women in the family with incest. Many works of literature especially from the 19th century on deal with the relation of father-figures and sons as the sons come into their patrimony or make it as self-made men, and this has been a favorite theme in contemporary film (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Star Wars, and The Godfather immediately come to mind).

A visual metaphor for incest. The closet is the enclosed, temporary refuge ... ... that the brute of a father breaks down.
The bed is the location where ... ... the father beats the daughter to death with the phallus/whip handle.

But this film is unusual in the way it faces the opposite question, not the coming into patrimony but the servitude of women, a servitude enforced by threats of deprivation emotional bullying, and the potential or actual use of physical force. In Broken Blossoms the father rapes his daughter—what does that mean? In Burrows' case, murdering Lucy is clearly the ultimate abuse of his prideful masculinity. In real life, we know that on the individual level rape is not an act of sexual desire but one of possession.[12] And on the social level, as Susan Brownmiller points out, rape is analogous to lynching; it is an act supposedly committed by lumpen proletarian men or a crazy few, but in fact rape performs a more general social function as a reminder and brutal enforcer of women's "place."[13]

When we take the second half of the term, "the father rapes his daughter," and ask what incest means to the sexual-political structure underlying the film, we arrive at the same answer—possession. The challenge to patriarchy that this film poses (or can pose through a feminist reading) is the following: If a man's social world consists primarily of a boys' club, of a nexus of economic and power relations conducted principally among men, how can a man ever set his daughters free or even conceive of what their freedom might mean? For the emotional implication Broken Blossoms dares to draw out is that for a man to be the possessor at home means to be incestuous toward his girl children as well as toward his wife.[14]

Griffith is perfectly clear about Burrows' excesses and morally righteous in disliking abusive masculinity, here safely assigned to the working class. We all see what Burrows is like and know why the brute is wrong. More interesting to me, and more ambiguous, is Burrows' complement, the Chinese man. On the superficial level, the film is an antiracist text, but the film says nothing from an Asian person's point of view, just as it says nothing from a woman's point of view. The images of the East, of Buddhism, of racial traits, and of an oppressed person's reaction to oppression are all drawn from hegemonic, white stereotypes. In fact, not only is Griffith working only with received opinions and prejudices about Asians, women, and the working class, but when he sets up his basic opposition of brute vs. sensitive man, he is working with a set of oppositions that have nothing to do with race.

The man of action vs. the sensitive outsider

What are these oppositions set up by the use of two contrasting male figures—the boxer and the opium smoker? The one character is a violent, selfish, insensitive man of action. Burrows moves with large gestures and commands a large space wherever he is. He is self-assured and demanding, even to the point of being physically and emotionally destructive to others around him. The other male figure in the film is a gentle, altruistic lover of beauty. He is a soft person, often emotionally paralyzed into inaction. He burns up his days in reverie and opium. But even though he would waste himself with drugs, he is basically fatherly and tender, totally self-sacrificing for a child-woman that he would wish to, but cannot, possess. Furthermore, he understands the hypocrisy of most social values in the capitalist West, his solution to that is to surround his own life with beauty and otherwise to withdraw. In his love life, the yearning is all.

The character whom Griffith can demean by calling "Chinky" has all the traits of a male cultural persona which has been valorized in Western literature for several centuries now—a persona Griffith himself surely must have identified with. "Chinky" is no less than our old friend, the romantic hero. He is the sensitive lover of beauty and the pursuer of unattainable women. The Chinese man could have stepped right out of Thomas DeQuincy's The Opium Eater, and it is indeed likely that the author of Limehouse Nights was influenced by DeQuincy's depiction of London poverty and a young man's opium addiction and friendship with a girl waif.

That Griffith, the artist who always thought of himself and his role in idealized terms, identified with the Chinese man can be seen in the way that Broken Blossoms' plot and mise-en-scene constantly valorize the young man's tenderness, aesthetic sensibility, and moral superiority. Indeed, all the Chinese man's virtues are conflated in a romantic way: to recognize beauty and to surround oneself with beautiful things are indices of moral superiority that those enmeshed in the workaday world do not recognize. Only artists, fellow outsiders, and women can recognize such a virtue for its worth.

To carry my analysis of sexual politics in Broken Blossoms one step further, I think we should ask why this figure is characteristically male and what his social role is. In fact, the romantic hero and the sensitive outsider (or, to use a more familiar equivalent, the filmmaker and the professors of literature and film)—these people have a specific class position under capitalism; their chance to choose that position is the escape valve that capitalism allows for dissatisfied male members of its petite bourgeoisie. To put it schematically, there are three roles available to men in capitalist society—to be an outsider, a worker, or a boss.

If you pursue profit and power, you also exploit others. To avoid facing that, you have to dull your emotional sensibility as you move up in social position. That is what Duddy Kravitz, Godfather II, and Room at the Top are all about. The capitalist has to believe that the profit motive serves society the best and cannot look with regret either at how he is exploiting others or at how his emotional and social forms of interacting with others might be better. Possession and dominance become embedded in a way of life.

Or a man may be a worker, putting in time at a stultifying job for a weekly paycheck, suffering humiliation both from superiors at work and from the threat of unemployment and/or illness—the threat of not being able to take care of one's own. For both male workers and bosses, most of whom are male, there are many reasons why men continue to suffer from rigid notions of sex roles, emotional paralysis, moral compromise, and a crippling of the imagination—and also why they oppress women.

The one "out" that has traditionally been offered to men since the last century has been to be the artist, the outsider, the rebel. This person has the insight and the inner drive to reject social respectability and emotional sterility. He can turn to creating art, living alone in nature, or taking drugs—often doing all these at once. Instead of pursuing money, success, and power in bourgeois terms, the romantic hero idealistically lives by virtues that seem to be precluded if one searches for social success: these virtues include creativity, passion, love, authenticity, honesty, sincerity, beauty, innocence, spontaneity, and contemplation of nature. At the same time, the romantic hero in his self-gazing is also like Hamlet, often paralyzed into inaction, usually ineffective, yearning for the unattainable woman, and inevitably self-destructive. That this is a male role can be seen from the fact that the rebel goes off to the woods or into drugs, but not back into the domestic sphere to raise small children. That has just not been one of the options that men have commonly imagined for themselves.[15]

Displacement

Furthermore, Griffith's "ruse" of using the Asian man as the romantic hero hides the social reality of racism. The romantic hero is more like Griffith's image of himself; Griffith wrote that he sought to live by the pen as a way of identifying with his earlier and most beloved image of his father, that is, of a man brandishing a sword (and in fact, it was brandishing a sword against a Black servant to teach the man his place).[16] When Griffith came of age in the South, the illustrious days of the Civil War and family prosperity were for him sadly a part of the legendary past. To be a writer was for Griffith to find a more modern, petit bourgeois way of being a real man in a culture not instinctively his own, of being socially functional yet still maintaining his felt identity as an Outsider, and of devoting himself to Creativity and Art.[17]

Perhaps reacting against the charges of racism that Birth of A Nation had provoked, Griffith clearly wanted Broken Blossoms to be considered anti-racist, but the film represses all understanding of the real mechanisms of racism. Griffith did not embed his depiction of doomed interracial love within an artistic structure that would clarify our understanding of race and racial oppression. Instead, he assigned to the Asian man the traits of his own class, that element of the petite bourgeoisie who feel themselves as individuals to be above economic and social constraints—sensitive outsiders morally superior to the bosses and brutes.

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