JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The films and television programs I enjoy often have the brutal murder of a woman as a key plot element.

 

Typage of the villain relies on a familiar, often exaggerated configuration of sexual traits.

Gish plays the waif in a film that treats girlhood in poverty in terms of victimization.

The Chinese man wanted to bring Buddhism to England.

He ended up in a London slum ...

Burrows' fighting confirms his traditional masculinity, and also contributes to the plot, since he brutalizes his daughter.

The saccharine smile.

After being beaten, Lucy goes out on the street and faints at the Chinese man's shop.

He takes her up to his second floor living quarters where she luxuriates in one night of loving care.

 

Burrows possesses his daughter as a household drudge. He moves around a lot and occupies the space of their small house with large, violent gestures. In contrast, in that space she huddles and tries to avoid his wrath. The use of the bed as a prop facilitates the condensation of her character into daughter and wife.

 

 

Broken Blossoms—
artful racism, artful rape

by Julia Lesage

from Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 26 (December 1981)

Sexist and racist films and television programs continue to engage us as viewers, we women of all classes and races. The mass media catch us up in their violence and sensuality. As a woman I must ask how the media can so seduce me that I enjoy, either as entertainment or as art, works that victimize women as one of their essential ingredients. Historically from the silent film era to the present, bourgeois film has developed various mechanisms for structuring in ambiguity and for keeping us emotionally involved. One of film's hallmarks as a "democratic" art form is its ability to allow for and co-opt an oppressed group's response. Feminist film criticism takes as its task exposing these ideological mechanisms and analyzing how they function both internal to a film and in a broader cultural and political context.

Familiar sexual traits

Specifically, if we look closely at narrative films, with the intent of decolonizing our minds, we will find a similar "story" about sexual relations running below many films' surface. Over and over again, male and female film characters are assigned a popularly familiar configuration of sexual traits.[1][open endnotes in new window] This constellation of recognizable sexual traits provides mass art a way to express the culture's commonly held sexual fantasies. The way these fantasies are expressed varies, of course, from film to film, where they are manipulated and often displaced (e.g., in "doubles" or in Others) or condensed according to the exigencies of the plot and/or the social acceptability of directly expressing a given fantasy.[2]

Strikingly, the same kind of sexual-political "story," or assignation of sexual traits, is repeated from film to film, no matter how much the manifest content differs between films. This repetition is not ideologically neutral. Persistent configurations of assigned sexual traits, deriving perhaps most directly from 19th and 20th century literature, have a vitality in contemporary film because these patterns emerge from and serve to reinforce patriarchal social relations in the world outside the film.[3] Fictional sexuality parallels the real options that hegemonic male culture would like to keep on offering men and women today, and real power differentials between the sexes. In terms of the emotional options for both men and women that the cinematic configurations of sexual traits present and delimit, patterns of characterization are, in fact, usually oppressively perverse.

Broken Blossoms

In this context, that of durable yet perverse sexual-political structures in film, it is useful to look at one of the first films in the United States that was received as high art and as a progressive and emotionally moving statement against both masculine brutality and racial prejudice: D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms. The film was released in 1919 and was one of a number of poetic and intimate depictions of domestic life which followed Griffith's monumental epics of 1915-16, Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.

Birth of a Nation, originally entitled The Clansman, had valorized the founding of the Ku Klux Klan, depicting it as a paternalistic, semi-feudal organization bringing order to a South suffering under the "chaos" of Reconstruction. Consequently, the film provoked a national scandal because of its racist content. Griffith's cinematic rejoinder to the charges against him, Broken Blossoms, deliberately tried to counter the then dominant racist ways of depicting Asians in popular literature, magazines, and film. In reaction to the importation of masses of Asian laborers and congruent with U.S. imperial ambitions in the Pacific, the United States had seen waves of anti-Oriental" prejudice in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Newspapers sensationally editorialized on and presented stories about the "yellow peril." Fictional narratives often used "inscrutable Orientals" as villains, or located vices such as drug addiction or white slavery in a U.S. Chinatown. In the decade before Broken Blossoms, films treated what seemed the most dangerous threat of all, "miscegenation."[4]

It is within this context that Broken Blossoms was perceived as a sensitive and humanitarian film. It daringly presented a chaste and ideally beautiful love between an immigrant Chinese man and a young white girl. The plot of the film was derived from Thomas Burke's short story, The Chink and the Girl," from his Limehouse Nights, tales of lumpen criminal life. Griffith changed Burke's Chinese protagonist from a schemer and "worthless drifter of an Oriental" to a poetic, peaceful Buddhist lover of beauty.[5] Ostensibly Broken Blossoms has a moral message: Asian Buddhist peacefulness is superior to Anglo-Saxon ignorance, brutality and strife.

Griffith embodies his moral message in his two male protagonists, a gentle Chinese storekeeper in London's Limehouse slum district, played by Richard Barthelmess, and a working-class brute there, Battling Burrows. Played by the large-framed, muscular actor Donald Crisp, Burrows prides himself on his masculine prowess. He is master both in the boxing ring and at home, where he bullies his housekeeper and daughter, the fifteen- year-old Lucy. Lucy, played by Lillian Gish, is a poverty-stricken, beaten child who awakens for one brief moment to emotional life before she is killed.

The plot of the film is simple. The film opens in a Chinese port city with Barthelmess in his ornate robes saying goodbye to his Buddhist mentor and then trying unsuccessfully to break up a fight between brawling U.S. sailors; the Chinese man is going to the West to bring a message of peace. The setting shifts to a London Limehouse slum, where we find out that the young Chinese man has become a lonely, disillusioned shopkeeper and opium addict.

... lonely, isolated, and ... ... lost in pipe dreams.

Elsewhere in the slum, Battling Burrows sits in his shack reminiscing about a fight he has just won and is reprimanded by his manager for drinking and womanizing before his next fight.

Burrows' daughter Lucy is introduced, sitting huddled on a coil of rope on the wharf outside their house. (As Charles Affron points out in Star Acting, all the sets in this film are claustrophobic, even the outdoor ones. Departing from the epic scope of Birth of a Nation, Broken Blossoms formally accepts and uses the edge of the frame as limiting the scope of the action and incorporates many other boundaries such as walls, arches, and corners within the frame to enhance a claustrophobic effect.[6] Two sequences, indicating Lucy's reverie or perhaps moments recently experienced, present Lucy's "education" about women's lives. First, a woman in a crowded one-room apartment who is cooking a meal for her huge family and fighting with her husband advises Lucy never to get married. Then Lucy is seen on the street retrieving a compact dropped by one of two prostitutes, who also warn her about men. Lucy gets up and enters the shack.

"Never get married," a poor mother tells her. Prostitutes warn Lucy as well.

Still smarting from his manager's rebuke, Burrows bullies Lucy. Before he goes out on the town again, he demands that she have tea ready when he gets back and also that she put a smile on her face. Lucy makes a pathetic gesture, using her fingers to turn up the corners of her mouth—it is a gesture she will repeat four times in the film.

In Burrows' absence, Lucy takes out a few treasures from under a brick on the floor, puts a new ribbon in her dirty hair, and goes out to shop. She looks longingly at the dolls in the Chinese man's shop window, buys a few essentials from a street stand, and wants to trade in some tinfoil to buy a flower but does not have enough foil. She is harassed on the street by another Chinese man, Evil Eye, but is protected by Barthelmess. When she goes home, her father, irritated by his manager's restrictions on his social life, bullies her. In nervousness, she drops hot food on his hand. Burrows angrily takes out a whip from under the bed and beats her unconscious. He then goes out to work out in the gym preparing for his big fight.

Lucy staggers to her feet, leaves the house, and weaves down the Limehouse streets. She falls unconscious through the door of the Chinese man's store. He has prepared himself an opium pipe and sits and gazes at her as if she were a vision in his drugged dream. She stirs and startles him into full awareness. He bathes her wounds, takes her upstairs to his living quarters, gives her his Oriental robe to wear, and puts her on his bed as on an altar. He surrounds her with all his beautiful things, gives her a doll, and is sexually attracted to her. As he moves to kiss her, he sees her fear and kisses the sleeve of her robe instead. Intercut with this sequence are shots of Burrows slugging it out and winning his big fight amidst the wild cheers of a working-class male audience.

One of Burrows' friends while shopping at the Chinese man's store discovers Lucy alone asleep upstairs and runs to tell Burrows of the daughter's "sin." The boxer and his friends agree to wait till after the big fight to settle the affair. When they get to the store, the Chinese man is away on an errand. Burrows hits his daughter, forces her to change back into her rags and come with him, and destroys everything in the upstairs room. His friends downstairs keep Lucy from escaping.

Once back at home, Burrows chases Lucy, who takes refuge in the closet. When she refuses to come out, Burrows smashes in the closet door with an ax; this sequence is shot from inside the closet, showing Lucy's hysterical reaction and absolute fear. The claustrophobic visual composition and Gish's acting indicate that we are intended to be "inside" Lucy's experience in this cinematic equivalent of rape. When Burrows chops through the door, he pulls Lucy through it and throws her on the bed, where he beats her to death.

Upon discovering the destruction in his room and Lucy's abduction, the Chinese man throws himself on the floor and sobs hysterically. He takes a gun, goes to Burrows' shack, finds Lucy dead, acknowledges the challenge Burrows gives him to fight, and shoots and kills the evil brute. Taking Lucy's body with him, the Chinese man goes back to his room and lays her body once again on his bed as on an altar. Burrows' friends discover the boxer's body and get the police to round up the Asian killer. Before they can do so, in a last act of tranquil and sorrowful love, even ecstasy, the "yellow man" praying before his Buddha stabs himself and joins his child-woman in death. This is the "plot" of Broken Blossoms.

The abuses of masculinity

If we analyze the story line more closely, looking particularly at the visual elements and cinematic tactics used to present it, it will become clear that the film is about sex roles as much as it is about race. In particular, it is about masculinity. In the figure of Battling Burrows, the film presents the potential evil of masculinity, here safety attributed to a grotesque Other from the lower classes. Projected onto the Chinese man's character are all the traits of the 19th century sensitive outsider, the romantic hero—a self-destructive dreamer who never lives out the fulfillment of his dreams. I wish to examine how and why such traits have been divided and assigned to the two major male characters in the film, and also what it means that the narrative places both men in relation to a "virgin." Finally I wish to look at the kind of role assigned to Lillian Gish and Gish's impact on/attraction for me as a woman viewer both drawn to and distressed by this film.

In Broken Blossoms, if we look closely at the gestures, the clothing, and the course of events in any given sequence, we will see that our interpretation of the characters' behavior relies on and indeed underscores many popular notions about what masculinity and the abuses of masculinity are. As Donald Crisp plays Battling Burrows, he uses exaggeration to delineate the attributes of a working-class bully and macho brute. Burrows carries the traditional attributes of masculinity to an abusive extreme. In contrast, Barthelmess plays the Chinese man as being in many ways not fully a man, as woman-like. Compare, for example, our judgments on the costumes and gestures of the two men as we first see them. We notice the ornateness of Barthelmess' robe, his facial gestures, especially his looking upward with half-closed eyes, his carrying a fan, his small movements, and his semi-static poses and stance.

"Woman-like." Exaggerated brutishness.

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