Interpretive keys to Jane Campion's The piano

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Interpretive keys to Jane Campion's The piano
Hutcheson, Tearlach Dubh
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vi, 127 leaves : ; 29 cm


Criticism, interpretation, etc. ( fast )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )
Criticism, interpretation, etc ( fast )


Includes bibliographical references (leaves 122-127).
General Note:
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree, Master of Humanities.
General Note:
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Statement of Responsibility:
by Tearlach Dubh Hutcheson.

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|University of Colorado Denver
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|Auraria Library
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37311971 ( OCLC )
LD1190.L58 1996m .H88 ( lcc )

Full Text
Tearlach Dubh Hutcheson
B.A., University of Colorado at Denver, 1994
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Humanities

This thesis for the Master of Humanities
degree by
Tearlach Dubh Hutcheson
has been approved
Susan Linville

£ /??£

Hutcheson, Tearlach Dubh (M.H., Humanities)
Interpretive Keys to Jane Campion's the Piano
Thesis directed by Professor Kent Casper
From the moment it opens with an unfocused point-of-view close-up shot looking
outwards from Ada's fingers the Piano portrays women's gaze. The fingers resemble
the cultural prison bars that have surrounded Antipodean women since their colonial
beginnings. It is through her fingers that Ada talks, whether through sign language,
which is only understood by her daughter, or through the music she plays on the
Piano. But the Piano is never her piano. The word is preceded by a definite article that
allows the instrument to refuse ownership and to become significant for all those who
view it. The Piano is a woman's voice. It is the object through which Ada, a mother
figure, communicates. But to the patriarchal society that surrounds her, the Piano, like
woman's voice, is an object merely to be bartered. In this film the bartering takes on a
more complex dimension. The buying and selling of a voice, like a colonial possession,
begins to rip at the very fabric of humanity. Ada becomes dispossessed and seeks her
identity by crossing boundaries of definition for motherhood as she struggles against
the family relationships that bind her. It is because of these activities that the film
becomes an important text, the Piano occupies a critical place not only in the history
of Antipodean cinema, but also in the history of English language cinema and world
cinema. Besides being the first feature length, woman-directed film to win the Palme
D'Or, it broke new ground by being the first Antipodean film to earn that honor. Even
more importantly, it initiated a break with Hollywood inscriptions of femininity,
mother-daughter roles, patriarchy, and colonialism, yet maintained a broad audience
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidate's thesis. I recommend
its publication.

I dedicate this thesis to my wife, Deanna,
for her patience and understanding while I was writing this thesis.

My thanks go to Susan Linville and Kent Casper who initially introduced me to the
realm of Film Theory Studies and have continued to assist me with my ongoing
exploration of this academic area.

1. INTRODUCTION.............................. 1
THE MURDER OF WOMEN..................... 6
5. WOMAN IS MADE, NOT BORN................... 51
6. CINEMA DEFINED OUR MOTHERS................ 64
9. UNDER THE DEEP, DEEP SEA ................. 98
ENDNOTES ......................................... 101
THE PIANO............................... 108
WORKS CITED ...................................... 122

She does not play the Piano like we do... [because]... to have a sound
creep inside you is not at all pleasant. Aunt Morag
- the Piano (1993)
I feel a kinship between the kind of romance that Emily Bronte portrayed
in Wuthering Heights and this film. Hers is not the notion of romance
that we've come to use, it's very harsh and extreme, a gothic exploration
of the romantic impulse, I wanted to respond to those ideas in my own
- Jane Campion
Campion's reclamation of women's sexual pasts is exhilarating, but Ada's
eventual liberation is presented as an arduous struggle against the
systematic denial of the existence of female desire.
- Stella Bruzzi
As an Australian living in the United States I have experienced a dearth of
Antipodean culture. Living in a nation that centers itself around its own culture, and
particularly its own Hollywood cinema, has sent me scurrying for films that represent
my own nationality. I am in a quandary as to whether the Piano (1993)* is a
representation of Antipodean culture, but I do believe that it is an accurate
representation of changing attitudes within Australian culture. Many Americans refer
to Australia as a male chauvinistic nation, but the facilities that we have opened up to
Campion's film was titled the Piano with a lower case t for the definite article. This was done in order
to emphasize the musical instrument. I will be following this phrasing throughout the thesis.

female artists, writers and particularly directors would seem to contradict this notion.
the Piano is a powerful illustration of the feminist movement occurring within
Australia and New Zealand. Because the countries have freed up access to mass media
modes of expression, Antipodean audiences, particularly female, are being allowed
greater access to the various perspectives of feminist Antipodeans.
From the moment it opens with an unfocused point-of-view close-up shot
looking outwards from Ada's fingers the Piano portrays women's gaze. The fingers
resemble the cultural prison bars that have surrounded Antipodean women since their
colonial beginnings. It is through her fingers that Ada talks, whether through sign
language, which is only understood by her daughter, or through the music she plays on
the piano. But the piano is never her piano; it is preceded by a definite article that
allows it to refuse ownership and to become significant for all those who view it. The
piano is a woman's voice. It is the object through which Ada, a mother figure,
communicates. But to the patriarchal society that surrounds her, the piano, like
woman's voice, is merely an object to be bartered. In this film the bartering takes on
complex dimensions. The buying and selling of a voice, like a colonial possession,
begins to rip at the very fabric of humanity. Ada becomes dispossessed and seeks her
identity through crossing boundaries of definition for motherhood as she struggles
against the family relationships that bind her. It is because of these activities that the
film becomes an important text, the Piano occupies a critical place not only in the
history of Antipodean cinema, but also in the history of English language cinema and

world cinema. Besides being the first feature length, woman-directed film to win the
Palme D'Or, it broke new ground by being the first Antipodean film to earn that honor.
Even more importantly, it initiated a break with Hollywood inscriptions of femininity,
mother-daughter roles, patriarchy, and colonialism, yet maintained a broad audience
To demonstrate that the Piano has been extremely innovative in the context of
world cinema, I will begin by considering feminist film theory. I will then move into
detailed analyses of a select few Hollywood films from the forties through to 1993
dealing with women in roles of motherhood that had large Antipodean audiences.
Next, I will consider the reasons why the Piano as a cinematic statement is so strongly
innovative and how it relates to and refutes past cinematic texts. By offering a detailed
examination of Ada's role as mother, Ada's cinematic positioning as a woman, Flora's
role of the daughter experiencing the Oedipal crisis, and the transformations of
Stewart and Baines catalyzed by Ada, this thesis argues that the film was indeed an
important intervention for Antipodean and worldwide cinema.
The story of the Piano is the story of Ada. A 19th-century Scottish woman of
formidable and eccentric intelligence who has not spoken since the age of six, Ada is
sold by her father to Stewart, a farmer in the wilds of New Zealand whose spirit has
been deformed by hardship and displaced decorum. Though speechless, Ada is far
from silent: a gifted pianist, she plays with an intensity that simultaneously enthralls
and frightens the average listener. Ada has a gravely beautiful daughter, Flora, who is

about the same age as her mother was when she decided to speak no longer, and who
often acts as an intermediary between her mother and the speaking world. The two are
set ashore on a deserted beach. When Stewart refuses to have the Piano hauled to his
house in the hills, Ada becomes distraught and resentful of her husband. Luckily,
salvation comes in the form of Baines, an uneducated colonial gone native, who helps
Stewart in his dealings with the Maori.
Mesmerized by Ada, Baines buys the Piano and arranges with Stewart for Ada
to give him piano lessons in his hut. At first, it seems what Baines really wants is
simply to listen as Ada plays. She reluctantly agrees, but soon Baines proposes a more
bizarre agreement whereby, in exchange for sexual favors, Ada can earn back her
piano in increments of keys, beginning at the rate of one black key per visit. Flora no
longer accompanies her mother during the lessons which progress from Baines
touching Ada's leg through a hole in her stocking, to caressing her bare arms as she
plays, and so on. Though Baines progresses to more overtly sexual behavior, he
abruptly releases Ada from the bargain, frustrated and unhappy when his affections are
not returned. Meanwhile, relations between Ada and Stewart have remained strained,
and the marriage has not been consummated.
After having been initially revolted by Baines, Ada returns to his hut and, when
he tells her that he loves her, sleeps with him. Stewart, who has been made suspicious
by some of Flora's comments, spies on the couple and becomes enraged. He imprisons
Ada inside their home, preventing her from making a second visit to Baines

something Baines had told her she would have to do to prove her love for him. Some
time later, after having peculiar sexual interactions with Stewart and having promised
that she would no longer visit Baines, Ada is released. As soon as Stewart has left the
home she immediately sends Flora to deliver to Baines a piano key inscribed with a
message of eternal love. Flora, trying to gain favor with her stepfather, feeling that she
has been rejected by her mother, shows the key to Stewart, who chops off one of
Ada's fingers in a rage. When Ada recovers, she leaves Stewart for Baines, and along
with Flora they head south by boat. During the journey, Ada orders the piano pushed
overboard and, caught up in the ropes that held it upright, is pulled into the water and
nearly drowned. Her emergence from the sea is a rebirth. The films ends with Ada
playing again, her mutilated finger replaced by a silver one, and learning to speak
again. The final shot is of the piano resting in the dark depths of the Tasman Sea.

We grew up with all those magazines that described courtship, giving us
lots of little rules and ways of handling it. We grow up with so many
expectations around it, that it's almost like the pure sexual erotic impulse
is lost to us.
- Jane Campion
lama foreigner to myself in my own language and I translate myself by
quoting others.
- Madeleine Gagnon
American audiences are not forgiving of women. They still want to see
women who are desirable and need to be protected
- Alison Maclean
Classical Hollywood Cinema has had a tendency to create movies in which
woman is the passive image and man the active bearer of the look. In Laura Mulvey's
well-known analysis, she argues that the cinematic image guarantees that women will
be reduced to objects of the erotic male gaze. A visual encounter with the female
bodily form produces in the male spectator a constant need to be reassured of his own
physiological image. Linda Williams writes, "It is as if the male image-producer and
consumer can never get past the disturbing fact of sexual difference and so constantly
produces and consumes images of women designed to reassure himself of his
threatened unity" (141). Freudian theory, which has been refined by Lacanian

psychoanalysis, explored the relationship between the male and female, particularly
with regard to the child's realization of male and female roles within the hegemonic
culture, the Piano, in effect, comments on all these theories. As a consequence, I will
summarize and discuss the theories, which form an important context for
understanding the film's innovations.
Freud referred to the early development of the male child as the Oedipal
complex and the female child's development as the Electra complex, although he
became dissatisfied with the latter designation. Indeed, while Freud's initial writings
described a close parallel between female and male development, he later abolished
this notion and instead acknowledged the powerful pre-Oedipal connection that the
daughter has with the mother. However, in his typical masculine manner, Freud saw
this feminine pattern as a deviation from the normal. The result of his musings left a
theory that placed women in an apparent state of regressive connection to their
mothers. Freud did acknowledge that girls would enter the triangular Oedipal relation
later than boys and that girls have a greater continuity of pre-Oedipal symbiotic
connection to the mother. The idea of the pre-Oedipal phase in women produced a
dislocation of the biologically derived presuppositions which underlay notions of an
"Electra" complex. In the pre-Oedipal phase, children of both sexes were psychically
indistinguishable, which meant that their differentiations into masculine and feminine
children had to be explained and not assumed. According to Freudian discourse the
pre-Oedipal child is bisexual and for children of both sexes the mother is the object of

However, the characteristics of the pre-Oedipal female challenged the concept
of a primordial heterosexuality and gender identity, resulting in the need for an
explanation of the girl's adult heterosexuality. Freud wrote:
It would be a solution of ideal simplicity if we could suppose that from a
particular age onwards the elementary influence of the mutual attraction
between the sexes makes itself felt and impels the small woman towards
men....But we are not going to find things so easy; we scarcely know
whether we are to believe seriously in the power of which poets talk so
much and with such enthusiasm, but which cannot be further dissected
analytically (qtd. in Rubin 186-187).
The dilemma that Freud encountered was that the daughter did not display a feminine
libidinal attitude. His solution was to claim that the daughter possessed penis envy, a
concept that has infuriated some feminists ever since, because this same daughter
recognizes that she is castrated. According to Freudian theory the girl recognizes her
lack of a penis, and the penis's ability to sexually satisfy the mother, and hence falls
prey to penis envy and the desire to possess this penis or else assume a position of
inferiority. Rubin comments that Freud's account of femininity can be read as claiming
that femininity is a result of biological circumstances which would place him in the
position of believing in biological determinism (187). However, Freud repeatedly
stressed that all adult sexuality resulted from psychic, not biologic, development. The
French have recognized this aspect of Freudian theory and as a result have attempted
to de-biologize Freud's theories. Jacques Lacan insists that Freud never meant to say
anything about anatomy. Instead the theory was about language and the cultural

meanings imposed upon anatomy.
Jacques Lacan's theory asserts that psychoanalysis is the study of the traces left
in the psyches of individuals as a result of their conscription into systems of kinship.
Kinship is the culturalization of biological sexuality on the societal level. Lacan's
psychoanalysis describes the transformation of the biological sexuality of individuals as
they are acculturated. In Lacan's scheme, the Oedipal crisis occurs when a child learns
of the sexual rules embedded in the terms for family and relatives. The crisis begins
when the child comprehends the system and his or her place in it. The resolution
occurs when the child accepts that place and acquiesces to it. When the child leaves
the Oedipal phase, its libido and gender identity have been organized in conformity
with the rules of the hegemonic culture which is domesticating it. Lacan moves beyond
Freud's problematic biological determinism by defining the difference between the
penis and the phallus. The phallus is a set of meanings conferred upon the penisit is
not the actual biological organ. Laplanche and Pontalis describe this difference and its
The theory of the castration complex amounts to having the male organ
play a dominant rolethis time as a symbolto the extent that its absence
or presence transforms an anatomical difference into a major classification
of humans, and to the extent that, for each subject, this presence or
absence is not taken for granted, is not reduced purely and simply to a
given, but is the problematical result of an intra- and inter-subjective
process (qtd. in Rubin 190).
In other words, the castration complex can be understood as the difference between
the child possessing, or not possessing, the phallus (symbolic power). The male child

will have access to the phallus merely because of the sex/gender system apparent in a
patriarchal culture. Not only does the phallus represent a difference, it also represents
the power that men possess over women. Therefore, penis envy can be explained as
jealousy in regard to who possesses the power within the culture rather than jealousy
in regard to the biological organ.
The Oedipus crisis occurs when the incest taboo initiates the exchange of the
phallus. It begins with the children discovering that they are of different sexes which
means they must assume a gender. They also discover the incest taboo which means
that the mother is forbidden sexually since she is biologically related to the child and
she belongs to the father. Finally, they discover that the two sexual genders do not
possess the same rights and therefore futures within the culture.
The male child in the Oedipal crisis exchanges his mother for the phallus, the
symbolic token which can later be exchanged for a woman. The boy disowns his
mother for fear that the father, his competitor for the mother's affection, would refuse
to pass on the phallus (symbolic power). If he is not allowed the phallus the boy is
acculturated into the domesticated position of woman within the culture. However,
through this act of disowning the mother he asserts the gender roles that have been
placed on his mother and father, allowing the mother to belong to the father.
Subsequently, when he becomes a man he too will be given a woman of his own. The
only thing required of the boy is patience. He is allowed to retain his libidinal
organization and the sex of his original love object. The social contract to which he

has agreed will eventually recognize his own rights and provide him with a woman of
his own.
What happens to the female child is more multi-faceted. Similar to the boy's
experience, she discovers the taboo against incest and the difference in the sexes.
However, unlike the boy whose only taboo is against the mother, the daughter is
denied all women. The girl is unable to have the phallus conferred upon her since the
phallus is conferred with the assumption that it will be exchanged for another woman,
besides the mother, at a later date. She is placed in a homosexual position in regard to
the mother, and the rule of heterosexuality which dominates the culture denies this
position as well as sexual identification with other women. The only way in which the
mother can be loved is by somebody who possesses the phallus. The girl does not
possess the phallus so she has no right to love her mother or any other woman. Also,
because of the boy having the phallus affirmed in him, the girl is in a position where
she has been promised to another man. She does not have the symbolic token that can
be exchanged for a woman. Lampl de Groot writes:
...if the little girl comes to the conclusion that such an organ is really
indispensable to the possession of the mother, she experiences in addition
to the narcissistic insults common to both sexes still another blow, namely
a feeling of inferiority about her genitals (qtd. in Rubin 194).
The girl therefore concludes that the phallus is indispensable for the possession of the
mother because only those who possess the phallus have a "right" to a woman. The
girl then begins to turn away from the mother. Lampl de Groot continues:

To the girl, it [castration] is an accomplished fact, which is irrevocable,
but the recognition of which compels her finally to renounce her first love
object and to taste to the full the bitterness of its loss...the father is chosen
as a love-object, the enemy becomes the beloved (qtd. in Rubin 194).
The girl turns from the mother because she does not have the phallus, and neither has
the mother conferred the phallus onto the girl. However, within the patriarchal culture
the mother does not possess the ability to confer the phallus (since she has also lost it
going through the Oedipus crisis herself). The girl then turns to the father because he
possesses the phallus and it is only through him that she might attain the possibility of
possessing the phallus herself. But the father does not confer the phallus onto the
daughter in the same manner that he does the son. The phallus "passes through" the
girl, without the girl ever truly possessing the phallus, and when the girl realizes this
she accepts her place as woman in a phallic exchange network. The girl can only
receive the phallus as a gift from a man. She is never placed in a position in which she
can pass it on.
The other part of the Oedipus complex concerns the girl repressing the active
portions of her libido. Rubin writes, "the ascendance of passivity in the girl is due to
her recognition of the futility of realizing her active desire, and of the unequal terms of
the struggle" (195). Freud believed that active desire was represented in the clitoris
and passive desire in the vagina. However the work of Masters and Johnson has
refuted these assumptions since any organ can be the locus of either active or passive
eroticism. Despite the biological implications Freud's schemata suggests, the theory

remains true in so much as it allows the female to assume the gender position of
woman within the culture. She takes on the persona of woman by becoming feminine,
heterosexual and passive. Critics often claim that this is a crisis that involves choices
and choices are a reflection of freedom in thought, therefore according to the critics
this is not necessarily the course of events that will take place. Freud in all actuality
agrees with these critics. He provides three possible alternatives to this normal course
of development. The girl may repress sexuality all together and become asexual, or she
may cling to her narcissism and desire and as a consequence become homosexual, or
she may accept the social contract and attain Freudian-defined normality.1
According to Freud and Lacan, the daughter does not require the symbolic
break from the mother as much as the son does because the daughter's sexual identity
does not depend on such a break. The son, on the other hand, must make the break in
order to become male-identified. The son breaks from his mother to identify with his
father and take on a masculine identity of greater autonomy. The daughter on the
other hand assumes her identity as female by becoming like her mother. Although she
must go through a period of primary transference of affection to the father and men in
general if she is to become heterosexual, she still never breaks the original bond. She
merely adds the love for her father and her love for man to her original relationship
with her mother.2
According to Lacan, through the recognition of the sexual difference of a
female who lacks the phallus that is the symbol of patriarchal privilege, the child gains

entry into the symbolic order of human culture. This culture then produces narratives
which repress the figure of lack that the motherformer figure of plentitudehas
become. In reflecting on Lacanian psychoanalysis, Christine Gledhill asks "Can women
speak, and can images speak of women?"(31). Mulvey's answer to this question is
representative of the negative response from much feminist film criticism:
Woman's desire is subjected to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound,
she can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it. She
turns her child into the sigriifier of her own desire to possess a penis (the
condition, she imagines, of entry into the symbolic). Either she must
gracefully give way to the word, the Name of the Father and the Law, or
else struggle to keep her child down with her in the half-light of the
imaginary. Woman then stands in a patriarchal culture as signifier for the
male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his
fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on
the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not
maker of meaning (7).
Mulvey's sketch of these two primary forms of mastery, by which the male
unconscious overcomes the threat of an encounter with the female body, is aligned
with two perverse pleasures associated with the malethe sadistic mastery of
voyeurism and the more benign disavowal of fetishism. Both are ways of not-seeing,
of either keeping a safe distance from, or misrecognizing what there is to see of, the
woman's difference.
A problem within feminist film criticism is that there is very little discussion of
the position of the female viewing subject. Williams writes, "it is an understandably
easier task to reject 'dominant' or 'institutional' modes of representation altogether than

to discover within these existing modes glimpses of a more 'authentic' (the term itself is
indeed problematic) female subjectivity" (142). By rejecting negative images of women
in the classical Hollywood cinema, narrative criticism, bound by Lacanian theory, has
failed to identify the pleasure for the women spectators. The issue at this point
becomes more complex than a need to represent positive images of women3.
The question rather becomes: how can repressed or negative characters
communicate to women and how can this language, however circumscribed in
patriarchal ideology, be understood by female spectators? If this dilemma can be
recognized then, Williams believes, new feminist films can learn to build upon the
pleasures of recognition that already exist with filmic modes to communicate to
women. Instead of simply rejecting the cinematic codes that have placed women as
objects of spectacle at their center, what is needed, and has already begun to occur, is
a theoretical and practical recognition of the ways in which women actually do speak
to one another within patriarchy.
The cinematic codes discussed in this particular instance can be related to the
positive image ideology that is suggested by Linda Artel and Susan Wengraf in their
essay, "Positive Images: Screening Women's Films." In their essay the two authors
outline their criteria for a positive female image:
presents girls and women, boys and men with non-stereotyped
behavior and attitudes: independent, intelligent women:
adventurous, resourceful girls: men who are nurturing: boys who
are not afraid to show their vulnerability.
presents both sexes in non-traditional work or leisure activities:

men doing housework, women flying planes, etc.
questions values and behavior of traditional male/female role
shows women's achievements and contributions throughout
deals with a specific women's problem, such as pregnancy,
abortion or rape, in a non-sexist way.
contains images of sexist attitudes, behavior, and institutions that
can be used for consciousness raising (9).
Attempts to place females into traditional male roles, and vice-versa, creates some
dilemmas. Campion, except perhaps through the bartering and economics involved
with the piano lessons, does not allow Ada to become more masculine and in fact
allows her to retain her femininity.
In her essay, "There's More to a Positive Image than Meets the Eye," Diane
Waldman deliberately sets out to counteract Artel's and Wengraf s definitions of a
positive image. She writes, "My criticisms fall into two categories: first, the criteria
involved in determining what is to be considered a "positive image," and second, the
limits of the very notion of'positive image' itself' (14). Waldman's first criticism
revolves around the relationship of a positive image to a social reality. In describing a
positive image the terminology of positive itself must be explored. A positive image in
film or photography is one in which the lights and shades correspond to the original
subject, or in other words the representation of the image is real. On the other hand a
positive image also means an affirmative image or one that is tending in the direction
regarded as progressive. The question then becomes one of do we represent an ideal
world or do we represent the world as it currently exists? How do we allow a

discourse that would explore the methodology in which women could overcome the
present reality of sexism that they are faced with every day?
Waldman's second criticism is of the very notion of a positive image as a
critical concept and a pedagogical tool. The very notion of a "positive image" is
predicated upon the assumption of identification of the spectator with a character
depicted in a film. The assumption made by Artel & Wengraf is that the images that
children are exposed to are negative images, distorted stereotypes and that this needs
to be corrected through the use of their positive image criteria. Waldman suggests that
a more beneficial way for a positive image to be represented to children is through the
teaching of the difference between a positive and a negative image4. The pure
representation of positive images within a classroom will be immediately refuted once
the students step outside the schoolyard, or as Waldman quotes her friend saying;
"two minutes of the Six Million Dollar Man can counteract the effects of my teaching
non-sexist values for both boys and girls" (18).
Gledhill supports Waldman's position with her argument against a purely
progressive representation of women. She writes:
However we try to cast our potential feminine identifications, all available
positions are already constructed from the place of the patriarchal other
so as to repress our "real" difference. Thus the unspoken remains
unknown, and the speakable reproduces what we know, patriarchal reality
Further on in her writing Gledhill describes a way out of the dilemma, "the location of
those spaces in which women, out of their socially constructed differences as women,

can and do resist" (42). Women speak to each other through their own means:
women's advice columns, magazine fiction, soap operas, and melodramatic "women's
films." The language used in these locations is language that is derived from women's
specific social roles-as mothers, housekeepers and caretakers of all sorts.
Gledhill's assertion that discourses about the social, economic, and emotional
concerns of women are consumed by predominantly female audiences could be
complemented by the further assertion that some of these discourses are also
differently inscribed to necessitate a very different female reading. In the same manner,
one kind of feminist film allows females a text which they can read, relate to their own
lives and simultaneously identify with the characters on screen.
In later chapters in this thesis I will discuss the various relationships that Ada
has with the characters around her. In these chapters I will also consider the manner in
which the audience is allowed to identify with the characters on the screen. But before
this is possible I will consider the traditional cinematic text and the manner in which
Classic Hollywood Cinema treated the mother/daughter/lover relationship to illustrate
the techniques that Campion uses to refute these traditional stereotypes.

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi
(So passes away the glory of the world)
The very word psychiatry, Dr Jacquith. Doesn't it fill you with shame?
My daughter, a member of our family. Mrs Vale.
There's nothing shameful about my work or frightening or anything else.
It's very simple really what I try to do. People walk along the road, they
come to a fork in the road, they're confused, they don't know which way
to take. I just put up a signpost. Not that way, this way. Dr Jacquith.
- Now, Voyager (1942)
I like to hear you talk. -Mildred.
Yeah? So do I. Something about the sound of my own voice that
fascinates me. Wally Fay.
- Mildred Pierce (1945)
The decline of the Australian film industry in the 1930s allowed film narrative
to be removed from Antipodean cultural discourse and consequently the audiences
were subjected to Hollywood narratives. To many people, film is an American
experience, and many Antipodeans are naive about the huge influence that their own
countries had in the world of cinema as American mainstream cinema steamrolled its
way over any history of cinema, in the process presenting an image that it was the only
true cinema. It was through film that American ideologies infiltrated Antipodean and
many other cultures. Jackie Stacey, in her essay "Feminine Fascinations: Forms of
Identification in Star-Audience Relations," details this influence. Stacey, via

advertising in publications throughout the world, asked women to write to her about
their favorite stars during the thirties, forties and fifties. Her replies came from not
only her native country, the U.K., but also America and Australia. Stacey noted the
various methods through which the movie stars affected the ways that the audiences
reacted outside the cinema. But perhaps most important is the implication that her
essay has when it comes to discussing the influence that American films had over other
cultures. Through the identification with female movie stars, Australian women were
influenced by American culture. However, it is not merely American culture that
appeared on the screen in front of the audiences; it was a patriarchal culture that
through its treatment of women created paradigms of social interactions that audiences
would follow.
Antipodean women were, through the viewing of American films, subjected to
the systems of female identification contained in those cinematic texts. Classical
Hollywood Cinema's portrayals of conflictive mother/daughter roles have depicted
mainly adolescent and adult daughters. Many films during this era concentrated on
female roles; three of the most discussed films in feminist mother/daughter theory are
Stella Dallas, Now, Voyager and Mildred Pierce. Besides the story lines concerning
mother/daughter relationships, these films' narratives also address the position of
women within culture. This position depends on social status, relationships with males
and the time period that the individual films were made. A consideration of these films
will illustrate the ways in which the Piano initiated a break with Hollywood

The three major mother/daughter films of this era dealt with the separation of
the mother from the daughter. Stella Dallas (1937) illustrates the separation complex
when Stella (Barbara Stanwyck) allows her daughter, Laurel, freedom by removing
herself from her daughter's life. Now, Voyager (1942) depicts the conflict between the
daughter, Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis), and her overbearing mother, Mrs. Henry
Windle Vale (Gladys Cooper)5. Mildred Pierce (1945) portrays Mildred (Joan
Crawford) as the emotionally separated but simultaneously over-protective mother
figure who spoils her daughter Veda materialistically, but is never available to fill her
daughter's emotional needs. It is important to note that in these films the solution for
the dilemma was always found in the male figure, which is not surprising when you
consider that even though the films were about women, the screenplays were written
and directed by men.
In her essay "The Case of the Missing Mother," E. Ann Kaplan sets out the
four traditional definitions/depictions of motherhood in the Hollywood feature. These
1. The Good Mother, who is all-nurturing and self-abnegating -
the "Angel in the House." Totally invested in husband and children, she
lives only through them, and is marginal to the narrative.
2. The Bad Mother or Witch the underside to the first myth.
Sadistic, hurtful, and jealous, she refuses the self-abnegating role,
demanding her own life. Because of her "evil" behavior, this mother often
takes control of the narrative, but she is punished for her violation of the
desired patriarchal ideal, the Good Mother.
3. The Heroic Mother, who suffers and endures for the sake of her

husband and children. A development of the first Mother, she shares her
saintly qualities, but is more central to the action. Yet, unlike the second
Mother she acts not to satisfy herself but for the good of the family .
4. The Silly, Weak, or Vain Mother. Found most often in
comedies, she is ridiculed by husband and children alike, and generally
scorned and disparaged (128).
Traditional Hollywood cinema also has a fifth maternal construct that Kaplan leaves
out of her list. This role is the following;
5. The Absent Mother. This narrative absence is found in
numerous films. The deletion appears most characteristically in Walt
Disney animated classics released since 1985 such as The Little Mermaid,
Beauty and the Beast as well as Pocahontas. All Disney classics since this
time, dealing with human roles, remove the mother from the equation
allowing the relationship to be between the daughter and the father/uncle.
As acknowledged by Lucy Fischer in her essay "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless
Child," the role of motherhood is often removed totally from the screen. The
relationships on the screen occur between the child and male adult figure. Marianne
Hirsch rephrases this concept by recognizing that in traditional Hollywood cinema the
only method in which the female can be inscribed into the male plot is through the
silencing of one aspect of women's experience and identity the maternal (4).
Classical Hollywood Cinema has traditionally relegated the mother to a
peripheral role. Even within the definitions of motherhood presented by Kaplan the
mother is viewed not as an individual but in her relation to child(ren) and husband.
Kaplan writes, "to place the camera in the Mother's position would raise the possibility
of her having needs and desires of her own" (128). Except for movies like Mildred

Pierce, the mother figure in Classical Cinema has generally not been a working
woman, and in movies like Mildred Pierce the mother is punished for attempting to
combine work and mothering. The Good and/or Heroic Mother is reflected in various
films of the fifties and early sixties such as The Thrill of it All (1963), but is perhaps
best illustrated in the TV mother of the fifties as this period of domesticity overcame
the United States6.
Stella Dallas depicts a shift between Kaplan's definitions of motherhood,
namely from a masculine defined Bad Mother to a Heroic Mother. Stella is initially
outside the social realm in which she desires her daughter to participate and it is only
through her sacrifice that her daughter is allowed to assume a position defined as
correct by the film's narrative. In being sacrificial Stella must, as Ben Brewster notes,
move Laurel "decisively into the world of Helen Morrison, shifting [her] point of
identification to Laurel's mother, Stella Dallas, who abolishes herself as visible to her
daughter so as to be able to contemplate her in that world" (5).
The Stella Dallas story concerns a fast-talking, upwardly mobile (she's taking
night classes), working-class woman from a small New England mill town who marries
the upper-class Steven Dallas (John Boles). The married couple has a child, Laurel,
but Steven moves away due to his irritation with Stella, who is unable to fit truly into
the role of an upper-class wife. Stella, however, has never attempted to mask her
desire to be the proper wife and Steven has reaffirmed Stella's social standing by telling
her to remain "just as you are." Through a series of pitiable events Stella is forced to

face the fact that she is the inappropriate mother for an upper-class girl, and she
creates a scheme to place Laurel in the correct bourgeois family of Steven (the male
figure) and his new wife. Stella Dallas is a film that examines woman's sexuality,
which is threatening to men, versus her role as a mother. The denial of sexuality allows
the woman to adopt motherly characteristics. Relegated socially and economically to a
lower class than her husband, Stella remains powerless throughout the film.
Stella is unable to transcend her working class roots but she is able to place her
daughter in a position in which she is able to overcome the deprivation of wealth7.
Her actions at the bourgeois resort, where she holidays with her daughter, are a
signifier of class and are viewed as humorous due to their ridiculousness, and yet are
depressing at the same time. In an inverse mirror relationship to the mother's inability
to rise above her economic status, the father in Stella Dallas is the solution to the
dilemma, as economic provider who allows the daughter to escape the same fiscal fate
as the mother.
The concept of releasing the daughter to the father also conveys the message
that the mother is an unfit role model for the daughter, and unless she realizes this, she
is a noose around her child's and her own neck. Many feminist critics would argue with
this assertion. Williams, in her essay "'Something Else besides a Mother:' Stella Dallas
and the Maternal Melodrama," writes8:
we see instead the contradictions between what the patriarchal resolution
of the film asks us to see the mother 'in her place' as spectator,
abdicating her former position in the scene and what we feel as

empathetic identifying female spectators can't help but feel the loss of
mother to daughter and daughter to mother (154).
In representing the mother/daughter dichotomy Stella Dallas re-emphasizes the role
of mother as an asexual persona. Kaplan states;
Stella's resistance takes the form, first, of literally objecting to Mothering
because of the personal sacrifices involved (mainly sensual pleasures);
second, of expressing herself freely in her eccentric style of dress and
being unabashedly sexual; finally, in growing too attached and needful of
her daughter (133).
In essence, Stella as a mother is resisting the roles that have been predefined mother
and repression of maternal sexuality. Stella Dallas illustrates the role of mother as a
burden to the daughter. This is a role that she must recognize and consequently
separate herself from so that the daughter may seek independence.
Stella's role as a mother is never compromised. Williams emphasizes this aspect
of the relationship when she refers to Laurel's birthday:
A particularly poignant moment is Laurel's birthday party where mother
and daughter receive, one by one, the regrets of the guests. Thus the
innocent daughter suffers for the "sins" of taste and class of the mother.
The end result, however, is a greater bond between the two as each sadly
but nobly puts on a good face for the other and marches into the dining
room to celebrate the birthday alone (7).
Particularly interesting within the film's content is the method in which the scenes are
set up. They begin with Stella's innocent perspective and then the perspective of the
community (or at least a certain class within the community) and/or estranged husband
that judges her a bad mother. Their judgement rests on the premise that Stella insists
on making motherhood a pleasurable experience by sharing center stage with her

daughter. It is not until the very end of the film that she allows herself to remain in the
background of the mis-en-scene and hence to break the bond between mother and
Stella's social status is compromised because she is a sexual being. She flaunts
her sexuality9 by donning feathers, furs, ruffles and enormous bell-like jewelry that
coincide with her exaggerated feminine presence. This presence offends the upper
class who prefer a streamlined definition of sexuality. The way that Stella forces her
sexual side upon others disconcerts them because of their own discomfort with their
repressed sexuality. In fact, one boy describes Stella as a Christmas tree. However as
Stella points out to Stephen, she has "always been known to have stacks of style!" The
layers with which Stella adorns herself are the typical assets of the fetishized woman.
Williams comments on this image:
The conventional masquerade of femininity can be read as an attempt to
cover up supposedly biological "lacks" with a compensatory excess of
connotatively feminine gestures, clothes, and accoutrements. Here
fetishization functions as a blatantly pathetic disavowal of much more
pressing social lacks of money, education, and power (151).
What Stella lacks is defined socially. Her place within the social structure is presented
as working class despite the methods she uses to better herself. Her adornments allow
her to be classified as sexual, placing her in a position of whore/mistress for the upper
class male who maintains the proper image with his spouse for his social peers. Stella
threatens the sexually staid upper class female and as a consequence is rejected by
them socially. For Stella, to be a mother does not mean that she has to be asexual.

Finally, Stella forces Laurel to turn to her father, the masculine figure, so that
her daughter may participate in the socially-defined correct circle. The problem here is
that Stella gives up her daughter to make up for what she herself lacks (138). This
resembles a void in the female's life. But the void occurs before this time, since the
mother is not allowed to prefer the child to the husband (133). According to Williams,
the husband is expected to have the attention of the woman first and foremost, with
the child coming second. Stella Dallas's marriage breaks up due to her refusal to
conform to her husband's social standards, at least according to her husband, despite
Stella's attempts to achieve these standards. In essence Stella attempts to play too
many roles at once (151).
Classical Hollywood cinema plots have decreed that love should control a
woman's actions and to truly love is to relinquish everything (Williams 164). Freud
notes that because of the lack of the phallus the female adopts the child (169) and
therefore in giving up the child the mother is in essence giving up her power. In the
context of a patriarchal dialogue, love defines man as the consumer and woman as the
consumed and it is only through the identification with the child that the woman is
allowed to be the consumer.
The second film I need to consider is Now, Voyager. Now, Voyager was
released in 1942 when females were the main target audience of Hollywood. Despite
this audience Now, Voyager is a deliberate attack on the maternal role. The movie
suggests that the difficulties faced by the maternal can only be corrected by the

involvement of the masculine figure. The film is the story of Charlotte Vale, who lives
in fear of her oppressive mother. Her mother, since becoming a widow, has literally
kept Charlotte as a prisoner in their home. Bette Davis' Charlotte is the archetypal
spinster who has strange and quirky hobbies, like woodcarving, is shy, unattractive and
supposedly overweight. Now, Voyager implies that the daughter can be taught the
masculine-defined role of motherhood and yet for this to happen the original mother
must be destroyed. Unlike Stella, Charlotte is wealthy, but lacks emotional well being.
It is only through the males in her life that she can achieve psychological happiness.
Classical Hollywood Cinema's most memorable depiction of the Bad Mother is
Mrs. Vale in Now, Voyager. As the malevolent mother who deliberately causes herself
to be injured to ensure her daughter's attention, Gladys Cooper's character is one that
perfectly fits the Hollywood paradigm. Mrs. Vale is not truly punished within the
cinematic text. Not punished, that is, unless we assume the loss of her daughter's
affections as punishment and her death soon after as retribution. The film also provides
a reproof of the mother by presenting the audience with a daughter who is able to
become a better mother than her own.
Motherhood is once again the encumbrance to the daughter's well-being. In the
same manner that Stella is the impediment to her daughter's social mobility, Mrs Vale
is the impediment to her daughter's physical and mental health (Charlotte smokes as a
sign of nervousness). She already has social position10. Charlotte is saved by psychiatry
and through her romance with Jerry Durrance she is able to assume the role of

substitute mother for Jerry's child. "While biological mothers in the film are distinctly
lacking in mothering skills...Charlotte turns motherhood into a profession part
psychotherapist, part nurse, part charming companion" (LaPlace 163). The masculine
definition of motherhood wins out and the biological tie between mother and daughter
is broken. Also, the male gives the daughter a form of escape from her own mother, a
theme that is repeated from Stella Dallas; even more prevalent in this film is the theme
that the male is the guide/instructor for emotional well being.
The "rescuers" of Charlotte Vale are masculine figuresthe psychiatrist Dr
Jacquith (Claude Rains) or the inaccessible lover Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid). Dr
Jacquith is immediately identified as the expert who can cure Charlotte of the neuroses
that her mother has produced in her. At the same time the mother blocks her
daughter's access to the masculine figure and attempts to shame Charlotte in the
presence of the doctor. The superiority of the masculine figure is represented in the
framed shot of the initial meeting where Dr Jacquith is standing, which allows him to
look down on Mrs Vale, when he first meets her. Then, after following Charlotte up to
her room, he returns downstairs and the frame places him between the mother and
daughter, signifying his role as mediator. Finally, the close-up of the doctor at the end
of the scene reiterates the masculine position, conveying the sense that only he has the
correct answer. This position of masculine superiority is repeated with Jerry Durrance,
who although initially is presented below Charlotte in the mis-en-scene (Charlotte
walks off the boat and down the ramp), stands taller than her in all their romantic

scenes. His ability to look down upon her and envelop her with his size, especially
during their night spent in the cabin when she talks in her sleep, allows him to become
a security device so that Charlotte may ward off her mother.
Charlotte uses the men around her to enable her to sever her ties with her
mother. When she returns from her second and curing sea voyage, this time without
her mother's influence, she goes upstairs to greet her mother and the voice-over of Dr.
Jacquith is heard reminding her: "Just remember that honoring one's parents is still a
pretty good idea. You're going to be a shock to her. I advise you to soften the blow.
Give her a little time to get used to you. Remember that whatever she may have done,
she's your mother." When she enters the room and is having difficulty overcoming her
oppressive mother, flowers arrive from Jerry and she is able to regain her composure
and fight off her mother. Ironically, it takes two masculine figures to enable Charlotte
to combat her one mother. Later, she again deploys the influence of Dr Jacquith in a
crucial scene with her mother when she states: "Dr. Jacquith says that tyranny is
sometimes the expression of the maternal instinct." This concept of motherly malice
was a reflection of contemporary society at the time of the film. Karen Anderson
writes: "The fear expressed about women rejecting their children, especially by
psychologists and social welfare officials, reflected a surprising anxiety about the
presence or strength of the 'maternal instinct.' Similarly, the apprehension regarding
the abandonment of feminine roles belied the conventional wisdom regarding an
ostensibly immutable feminine personality" (92). Now, Voyager reflects the masculine

component of the mother/daughter relationship. It portrays the male (absent father?)
figure as the way to separate the mother/daughter and to allow the daughter
independence. It suggests, in contrast to Stella Dallas's motif, that the mother is
unable to recognize the overwhelming bond she has with her daughter and that it takes
a male to create an escape route for the daughter.
Perhaps the most often talked about aspect of Now, Voyager in feminist texts is
the manner in which the mis-en-scene creates a sense of positioning for females within
a patriarchal society. Regardless of the fact that this film was designed for female
audiences, its gender representations are masculine. When we first observe Charlotte
Vale, after her transformation into a sexually desirable female, we scrutinize first her
feet in high heels, stockinged legs, and a modest but sexy skirt hem. She strides
confidently, despite her lateness, down the ramp between the main cruise liner and the
boat that would take herself and other tourists ashore. Her figure becomes one of body
parts. The introduction of the feet alone is enough to signal to the audience the change
that has occurred in Charlotte. Charles Aftfon describes the next segment of the
transformation when he writes about Charlotte's face:
The radical shadow bisecting the face in white/dark/white strata creates
a visual phenomenon quite distinct from the makeup transformation of
lipstick and plucked eyebrows...This shot does not reveal what we
commonly call acting, especially after the most recent exhibition of that
activity, but the sense of face belongs to a plastique pertinent to the
camera (qtd. in Doane 44).
Mary Ann Doane comments that this "plastique pertinent to the camera" constitutes

the woman not only as the image of desire but as the desirous image (44). The female
on the screen is no longer merely a sexual figure. Knowing that the male desires the
female on the screen, the female in the audience seeks a transformation into a position
of desirability and hence attempts to become the image she observes on the screen.
Even if the female does not realize that the masculine audience member desires the
screen image, she does recognize that Paul Henreid desires Bette Davis and hence
seeks to become this figure.
This relationship between audience and screen image allows Now, Voyager to
become a discourse about woman's place within culture. The audience is initially
allowed to observe Charlotte Vale as a bespectacled, frumpy female who is mocked by
her niece and appears to receive only the platonic affection of Dr Jacquith. Charlotte's
eyes are hidden by her spectacles and, as part of her so-called cure, Dr Jacquith
confiscates them. Her eyes are revealed to those around her. This is perhaps one of the
most cliched images of cinema: the removal of the glasses before the kiss. Glasses
signify intellectuality which is, according to Now Voyager's discourse, initially a
position of undesirability. The Hollywood formula requires that intellectuality must be
removed before the male will seek the female.
Maria LaPlace's essay "Producing and Consuming the Woman's Film;
Discursive Struggle in Now, Voyager" is a commentary on the relationship between the
female star and the female spectator. She notes that the film was promoted as "a how-
to-be-beautiful guide with Davis as chief instructor" (141). However, LaPlace argues

that this discourse of consumerism is neither totalizing nor unyielding, because of two
factors. First, to whatever extent consumerism may rely on the woman as an object to
be made desirable to men, it ultimately situates females in the position of subject and
therefore opens up many unintentional possibilities for the articulation of female desire.
Secondly, LaPlace says that the discourse on consumerism in Now, Voyager intersects
with two other discourses, those of female fiction and of the star image of Davis, both
of which mediate the objectification of woman with her autonomy and self-
determination. LaPlace's argument surpasses the finite image observed on the screen.
Despite the initial reaction the female viewers might have to Davis's image, ultimately
they seek their own. LaPlace writes,
Choice and freedom for women in the ads became synonymous with the
mass-produced goods of the market, robbing them of their connotation of
structural social change. Nevertheless, the effects of the idea that freedom
and choice were legitimately desirable for women could not be entirely
contained by Big Business (140).
spectators with the knowledge of the Bette Davis discourse can interpret
the ending such that it can be made to speak for women (165).
However, this phrase contains within it the escape clause of "spectators with the
knowledge of the Bette Davis discourse;" i.e. only certain females could understand
the ending according to LaPlace's argument. Despite this argument the underlying
message of Now, Voyager teaches that heterosexual desirability must come before
motherhood. If motherhood is the biological goal of the female spectator then she

must first become desirable. This occurs by observing an image on the screen and then
seeking through consumerism to become that image. Bette Davis's character sidesteps
this stage of the female motherhood role and is allowed to adopt a child.
Even if the female spectator goes beyond the film's goals she still seeks
desirability. Charlotte set out to be desirable to males, which is her cure. The
masculine psychiatry suggests that the only manner in which Charlotte can be made
better is if she presents a sensual persona making her attractive. The male must be
allowed to be the voyeur with the female as his object of desire. LaPlace may claim
that the female is allowed to become subject but this subject position is shared with the
object position. Bette Davis's character transformation is not one of object to subject;
rather it is a position that confuses subject and object. She moves from a position of
visual undesirability to sensuality. Even as the mother, Charlotte's character maintains
desirability because she fulfills the masculine perspective of the perfect mother.
Moving beyond the scenario of the desirable single female, Now, Voyager
progresses, if only chronologically, into Charlotte's role as mother. This is not a role
that is biologically inherent for Charlotte but rather a role she inherits as she assumes
the masculine position of Dr Jacquith in regards to her relationship with Jerry's
daughter Tina. Charlotte's relationship with Tina is part of an Oedipal fantasy, in which
Charlotte is allowed not only to be daughter to Mrs Vale, but to overcome her
mother's transgressions and become the ideal mother for Tina. She is able to overcome
the Oedipal crisis intrinsic to the mother-daughter relationship, and even though the

audience is placed in a position of favoring this relationship, the discourse of the movie
deliberately forgets that this is not the ideal mother-daughter relationship since the
natural mother is forcibly, and even legally, prohibited from having a tie with her
daughter. The mother-daughter bond is broken and replaced with a masculine ideal.
Charlotte's character is transformed into the masculine desired persona. When Dr
Jacquith tells Mrs Vale that he merely places signposts in the roads he forgets to tell
her that the signposts read: "This way to assume a masculine ideal" and "This way to
be female."
Mildred Pierce, the last film of this era I will be considering, like Stella Dallas,
contemplates rising mobility, social status and the mother/daughter role. However, the
film was released at a time when the female was being forced out of the workplace by
the soldiers returning from World War II into a position of domesticity. This film
allows the mother, Mildred, to be socially mobile, having a successful career and
possessing an entrepreneurial spirit. This is in direct conflict with Stella Dallas, who is
unable to rise above her working class roots. Mildred's class ascendancy through
salaried employment, contrasts with Stella's more traditional method of marriage. It
allows Mildred to assume a traditionally masculine position in an economic
environment. Stella's rise using a traditionally female method does not allow her to
truly rise in the social stratum. At the same time the role of mother/daughter is
reversed from Now, Voyager. Mildred's daughter Veda is now the malevolent one. No
longer does the daughter go off happily into the sunset. Instead she ends up being

arrested for the murder of her mother's second husband Monty and Mildred is reunited
with her first husband, Burt.
Mildred Pierce is an interesting film because it is a combination of film noir, a
traditionally male genre, and melodrama, a traditionally female genre. This
combination of styles has been heavily criticized. Williams believes that the masculine
film noir style is subversive because it fails to allow the mother to tell the story of her
relationship with her daughter (139). The masculine film noir is linear with an action-
packed narrative which encourages identification with the masculine characters
whereas female, less linear narratives encourage an identification with the suffering
heroine. Despite the fact that Joan Crawford's character's voice-over introduces the
flashbacks, the predominance of the masculine narrative fails to allow the audience to
identify with Mildred. The story line is approached with a masculine perspective and a
masculine interpretation of what the events in the narrative means and how the
audience should interpret them. If it is possible to reverse the sexes of the characters in
the film and consider how an audience would have interpreted the film's events, it is
possible to surmise that they would not have believed the scenario. Instead, they
would have desired that the character be designated as the evil stepmother and be
murdered for this reason.
The film is a condemnation of working women. In a post-war, post-Rosie the
Riveter era, the film is set up to occur in the kitchens of the characters. The film's
narrative suggests that the proper place for a woman is in the kitchen and its

condemnation of working mothers is extremely harsh. The film was released at a time
when there was great concern about the working mother. Suzanna Walters notes that
even during the war years there was a strict hierarchy of those who could work, with
single women at the top and mothers with young children at the bottom (48). The
media at the time believed that unless it was absolutely necessary, women of children
too young to attend school should not work outside the home. This condemnation of
working mothers occurred well before the release of Mildred Pierce. "Scare stories
about 'latchkey children' and 'eight-hour orphans' filled the newspapers and magazines,
even though most surveys showed that the vast majority of working mothers made
arrangements for the care of their children before they took jobs" (Anderson qtd. in
Walters 49). Released in 1945, the film was a deliberate attempt to remove the social
status of working for women and to return women to the domestic sphere so that
soldiers could return to their jobs. This return occurred despite the fact that women
did not necessarily want to return to the life they had before the war.
Mildred Pierce also includes a theme of maternal sacrifice. Mildred states;
"I've done without a lot of things, including happiness sometimes, because I wanted
her to have everything." In Stella Dallas the sacrifice is seen as noble, whereas in
Mildred Pierce the sacrifice backfires in the character of spoilt Veda. Unlike Now,
Voyager the mother is viewed as inherently noble. However, Mildred Pierce suggests
at the same time that even though the mother is noble she does not truly understand
the implications of her actions. Mildred's actions are no longer signs of love and

devotion as they were in Stella Dallas; now they are signals of over-involvement,
smothering, and ultimately pathology. The film clearly blames Mildred for the way her
daughter has turned out.
Mildred Pierce carries with it the narrative that if the mother cannot
understand the implications of her actions, and neither can the venomous daughter,
then the only alternative is a male. From the very beginning the masculine film noir
wisdom provides insight into the eventual conclusion of the film. In the first flashback
scene, Burt tells Mildred that she's "trying to buy love from those kids and it won't
work" and concludes, "there's something wrong Mildred, I don't know what, I'm not
smart that way but I know it isn't right." The camera tracking alone in the scene places
Burt in a position of the stable presence whereas Mildred's movements place her in a
position of instability. A woman's intuition, especially when it comes to maternal
instincts, is suddenly suspect and almost unnatural.
There is one question that haunts the film: how did Veda turn out so
malevolent? Is she just a "bad seed" who emerges from nowhere to haunt her mother
or does her mother's seemingly self-sacrificing actions result in her daughter's actions?
Is the daughter as an only child indeed selfish and never able to assume any of her
mother's personality traits (52)? Mildred's status as working mother is never directly
attacked by the characters within the film and in actuality the denigration she receives
from Veda and Monty is shown as mean, ungrateful and snobbish. Mildred's actions
within the film's narrative are always considered wrong despite the actions of those

around her. Why does Mildred work? To support her family. Why does she need to
support her family? Because she has kicked her husband out of the house. The
flashback to Mildred and Burt's break-up is seen as Mildred's fault. Here again we
return to Veda, for it is over a fight concerning her, namely Mildred's spoiling of the
child, that Burt leaves. Burt's involvment with another woman is downplayed and the
film narrative suggests that this is merely natural since Mildred is obviously an unfit
mother and wife.
The film narrative also suggests that it is Mildred's fault that her younger
daughter Kay dies. Mildred's romantic involvement with a man and her overworking
are the suggested contributors to this death. Ironically, Kay, the "good" daughter,
mysteriously contracts pneumonia and dies in a single day the single day that Mildred
happens to be out with another man and her estranged husband Burt has the children.
The film's narrative does not suggest in any way that Burt is to blame even though on
that day he had assumed the parental role. Mildred's romantic attachments place her in
a position of being immoral. She is suddenly fair game to every man who enters her
life. The film suggests that Mildred is clearly responsible for her uncleanliness (and
Kay's death), and yet she curiously shows little long-term remorse or grief.
Mildred's last attempt at a sacrificing action is doomed from the start because
of the film's noir formula. The true killer must be found by the masterly masculine
detective ("Not this time, Mrs. Berrigan. This time your daughter pays for her own
mistakes."). The motif of the male as rescuer is once again reiterated in Mildred

Pierce. It takes a male to uncover the truth and allow justice to be carried out, and
Mildred returns in the end to her first husband, Burt, the father of her daughter, for
consolation and happiness. In Mildred Pierce, Mildred is successful in asserting her
independence. However at the end of the film she is replaced into her husband's
custody. The solution is once again masculine.
The movement away from the depression years, when both sexes had to work
to provide a sufficient income to survive, to World War Two, when women began .
entering traditionally male jobs in the work place, was facilitated in part by Hollywood
depictions of women on the big screen. The transformation from "mother knows best"
for her daughter in Stella Dallas, to depictions of mothers who know nothing about
how to raise children in Mildred Pierce, allowed the male to force the female into a
position of domesticity. The masculine ideal of child-raising was reflected in the
cinema narratives and allowed this ideal to predominate in the audience's minds as they
identified this ideal with their favorite stars.

In the '80s...women learned that 'having it all' meant doing it all, and
some look backwistfully at the simpler times before women's liberation.
But very few would really like to turn back the clock
- Time Magazine
Mother and daughter, daughter and mother; it is as if we are part of
some prepackaged, seamless unit whose characteristics have all been
decided ahead of time, by someone else. An unconscious bondage
develops in which mothers and daughter rely too heavily on each other
for identity. We don't know how to get free to be ourselves.
- Colette Dowling
Again if one is a woman one is often surprised by a sudden splitting off
of consciousness, say in walking down Whitehall, when from being the
natural interior of that civilization, she becomes on the contrary, outside
of it, alien and critical.
- Virginia Woolf
The theme of maternal malevolence, social status and masculine solutions that
we have observed continued into the fifties and beyond. Despite the move into a
feminist consciousness in the sixties and seventies, the domestic theme of the fifties
continued into the films that Hollywood produced and exported to Antipodean
audiences. Even though some of these movies were a step forward, they failed to
reach the audiences for who they were intended, and the ones that did reach large
audiences perpetuated the Hollywood stereotypes of mothers. In this chapter I will

consider the influence of the domestic sitcom and the films dealing with mother-
daughter roles during the seventies and eighties. I will finish my discussion of this era
of film with an analysis of Thelma and Louise, the most popular feminist Hollywood
film of the nineties.
With the introduction of television to Antipodean audiences, the domestic
realm of American motherhood was reiterated to audiences Down Under. With
America as a nuclear superpower and the ANZUS treaty in place, Antipodean
audiences intently watched the Cold War debates. These debates reinforced the gender
roles as decreed by Hollywood cinema. The 1959 Nixon-Khrushchev "kitchen
debates" used women as central elements in respective visions of the "good life"
(Walters 71). Anti-communist writers ridiculed the unfeminine working Soviet women,
implying that self-supporting women were in some way unnatural. In Nixon's vision,
the suburban ideal of home ownership would diffuse two potentially disruptive forces:
women and workers. The post-war suburban growth as soldiers returned from the
Pacific arena reflected the masculine desire to place their wives into a position of
domesticity well before the debates. The Nixon-Kruschev debates merely reiterated the
American viewpoint on the different sexes' roles.
This domesticity was reinforced by the television set with sitcoms like "I Love
Lucy" which were exported from the U.S. into Australia and New Zealand. "I Love
Lucy" revolved around Lucy's living room, now aptly renamed as the family room.
The new affluent society was not the wealth depicted in Stella Dallas and Now,

Voyager; instead it was the suburban home. Antipodean audiences realized that their
ability to reach the social heights depicted in Hollywood cinema was severely
restricted by the class system inherited from the British and hence saw the working
class move to the middle class as a symbol of social success. The fifties and the
domestic entertainment of the television set did not assist the. female position in any
way as the popular shows of the time were domestic sitcoms.
It took until the late seventies with movies like An Unmarried Woman (1978)
for feminist film texts to be released in Hollywood cinema. An Unmarried Woman
addresses the issue of a divorced woman with a teenage daughter. This film was
particularly interesting in the manner that it synchronologically analyzed the daughter
and mothers' relationship instead of contrasting the two. The film also deliberately
addressed the woman's movement by depicting consciousness raising sessions,
separation and divorce, feminist psychotherapy, women and work as well as a host of
other questions deemed important to the women's movement (134).
The synchronological analysis can best be seen in the scene where the mother
and daughter discuss the daughter's relationship with her boyfriend Phil. The daughter
informs the mother that she is ready to become sexually active, but she is not planning
to marry her boyfriend. She also informs her mother that she never plans to marry
since, as she states "everybody, I know that's married is either miserable or divorced."
When her mother argues against her she challenges her mother to name three happily
married couples, something her mother cannot do. The next scene reveals the mother's

marital problems and her abandonment by her husband, reinforcing the daughter's
perceptions of love and marriage.
Another step forward for this film was that it depicted the breakup of the
marriage as the father's fault. In Stella Dallas, Mildred Pierce and Now, Voyager all
the marriages are depicted as being unhappy because of the wife and not the husband.
The film also allowed the mother to be sexual and without being punished for her
activities. In fact the final scene of the film where the mother brings her boyfriend Saul
home to dinner leaves the audience with an image of mother and daughter singing
together. The mother and daughter remain bonded and their relationship is never
interfered with by masculine influences.
Despite all these positive aspects to the film and its similarity with themes in
the Piano, it failed to attract a large audience. Without a large international audience it
failed to have an impact on women, especially Down Under where the film went nearly
completely unrecognized. Presented at a time when US feminism was still seen as
suspect and radical, the film presented to its Antipodean audiences a US scenario to
which the audience could not relate. The situation seemed too ideal and the fact that
the mother went unpunished for her sexuality was unrealistic. Although a positive
image, it failed to depict reality.
Three years later the narratives of the forties and fifties were reproduced with
Mommie Dearest (1981). The release of Mommie Dearest allowed maternal
malevolence to return to the big screen with a vengeance. Besides being the ostensible

story of Joan Crawford relationship with her daughter it also allowed a merging of
reality and cinema to take place. No longer was Joan Crawford playing the character
of Mildred Pierce. She was Mildred Pierce, but never in the polite manner in which
Mildred conducted herself. All the cinematic images of malevolent mothers during the
forties and fifties were rehashed and reconstructed in the persona of Joan Crawford
who simultaneously became Stella, Mildred and the evil Mrs Vale. Her divorces,
multiple marriages, and lack of time for her daughter reiterated many film themes and
at the same time destroyed all the strengths that these characters originally had on the
screen. There are even times in the film that Joan Crawford is depicted rehearsing lines
from Mildred Pierce with her daughter. Reality became fused with the cinematic
Then in 1983 the success of Terms of Endearment provided instant recognition
for the film among Antipodean females. This film is an important breakthrough
because it depicts an older woman being sexually active, while still maintaining a
maternal orientation. However, the film also suggests that the sexual activity is only
brought about because of the next door neighbor, a lewd astronaut played by Jack
Nicholson. The film also suggested that the position of single woman was undesirable.
Ellen Seiter notes:
In Terms of Endearment Aurora Greenway, Emma's mother, presents a
problematic figure because she is unmarried. Throughout the film, Aurora
creates disruptions. The film's narrative can be seen as the process of
recuperating Aurora into a normal relationship with a man within a family.
The story redeems Aurora as a mother at precisely the same time that it

redeems her as a woman, by finally replacing her within the family as the
one who cares for the children (qtd. in Walters 203).
Aurora (Shirley Maclaine) as a woman without lover and/or children is only able to
regain her value as a woman when she returns to the position of lover and/or mother.
It takes the daughter (Debra Winger) to retrain the mother and to encourage her
relationship with the astronaut, Garrett. When the mother crawls into bed beside her
daughter, the night after her husband's funeral, it is the daughter who assumes the role
of mother when it should be the mother comforting the daughter since she has lost her
father. The daughter assumes the position of strength within the mother-daughter
The death of the daughter at the end of the film is reminiscent of the ending of
Stella Dallas. However this time the roles are reversed. Instead of the mother being
noble and removing herself from her daughter's life, the daughter, although stricken
with disease, leaves the mother, allowing Aurora to regain her identity as a woman.
The daughter's role as mother is never truly developed, however her role with her
children suggests that, like Charlotte Davis in Now, Voyager, she is a better mother
than her own. She is the stabilizing force that allows her mother to achieve happiness.
No longer is the daughter merely surpassing the mother, she is also reconstructing her.
This image of evil Hollywood mother was reiterated in the film Postcards
From the Edge (1990). Meryl Streep as Suzanne Vale11 (a thinly disguised Carrie
Fisher daughter of Debbie Reynolds and author of the book of the same title) plays a

daughter victimized by her overbearing mother (Shirley Maclaine) who insists on
always being the center of attention. Suzanne is a young actor locked in a cycle of B
movies and drug abuse. When she overdoses, her mother breezes nonchalantly late
into the hospital and spends her time entertaining a gay male couple who imitate her in
their drag show. Her daughter is ignored, allowing the themes of maternal neglect and
narcissism to rear their ugly heads once again.
The mother's overshadowing of her daughter is perhaps best represented in the
scene when the mother throws a welcome home party for her daughter from the
hospital. Intent on having all the attention, the mother merely draws attention to her
daughter's drug abuse and when she forces her daughter to sing to the crowd she
stands to one side mouthing the words to her daughter, as a mother does to a child
performing at an elementary school play. The mother remains the star, coaching her
daughter along every step of the way. Then when the mother performs a glamorous
song and dance, the attention returns to her.
The movie is a criticism of the mother who, similar to Stella, demands that her
sexuality remain intact despite her role as mother. Instead of covering herself with
adornments, her activities and her demands that she be the center of attention allow
the audience to view her as narcissistic and an underlying cause cause of her daughter's
problems. Doris, the mother, is merely lost, past her prime, trying to remember who
she once was. She is attempting to relive her days of stardom through her daughter,
and when that doesn't succeed she attempts to reinvent herself as the star.

Finally, Thelma and Louise (1992) came to the screen. Hailed as a feminist
narrative in the media, and yet directed in traditional Hollywood style by a male, its
conclusion suggests that the ideal for women is outside of the patriarchal culture,
which can only be achieved by death. The cries of "Life or Liberty" resound at the end
of this film but somehow the death of the heroines is seen as a failure, leaving many
audience members disgruntled. Is the solution really death? The film asked its
audiences whether females can stand up for what they believe in within the patriarchal
Thelma and Louise was an event. It was hailed in the media and addressed in
all the popular periodicals. It re-invented the male-buddy genre, replacing the males
with women. Its opening and closing shots were of the road, a symbol of travel and
the American male love affair with the automobile. Patricia Mellencamp writes,
Neither "the road" nor "the West," both emblems of adventure, has been
a space for the women' movement. In both genres women were static. In
the western they were confined to the schoolroom, the saloon, or the
ranch kitchen. Rather than taking to the open road, as male authors did,
women remained behind, waiting: or they were way stations for the men
along the road. But Thelma and Louise are on the move (148).
Women were no longer part of the domestic realm of the mother-daughter situation.
They were seizing from the males previously defined masculine territory. Mellencamp
notes that the film moved from cluttered lifestyles, Thelma in her suburban home, and
Louise in her noisy smoky diner, with the assistance of the Thunderbird, out into the
open wide spaces where the women are allowed to let their hair down. This move is

made possible because of an attempted rape resulting in the murder of the perpetrator,
and the realization that if they were to survive the women would have to place
themselves outside of the patriarchal order. However, despite the fact that they
succeed in achieving freedom, they also attain freedom through grasping masculine
fantasies. The women in essence become male. The way out is seen as male and the
only method in which freedom can be attained is by undertaking masculine activities.
The film's ending was disconcerting. The assumption is that death is liberating,
which cannot be proved. It is also assumed that life for women is such a horrifying
experience that the only way out is death. However, the women never truly get
punished for their killing of the attempted rapist. Perhaps their punishment is death?
The film suggests that the removal of themselves from the patriarchal discourse can
only result in destruction for the leading ladies. Mellencamp may argue that this is a
liberating scene, but it is also a cop-out. Is the message of the film that women need to
kill themselves to be happy?
Despite its questioning Thelma and Louise was not able to deliver a
compelling feminist narrative that a broad spectrum of female audiences could truly
relate to. The world would have to turn to an international women's movement in
cinema for alternatives. Among English language filmmakers, Canadian and British
women directors have produced feature films that challenge the Hollywood hegemony,
but the women directors from Down Under have surpassed their foreign sisters,
particularly when one considers the Piano. The character of Ada embodies women's

position in a patriarchal struggle and the audience is allowed to follow with her as she
struggles to remove herself from the confines that the culture represents.

In order to transform others, first you must transform yourself
-Mahatma Gandhi
An Australian film made in 1988 may be about bushrangers who lived a
hundredyears ago. But how the bushrangers are shown in the story will
reflect what today's society thinks about outlaws.
- Robert Evans
I didnt need to speak, I could lay thoughts out in his mind like they were
a sheet. Ada
- the Piano (1993)
The formulation of the problematic positive image in a feminist film is
addressed by Campion through her construction of Ada's character. Ada is central to
the Piano's narrative and in order to make her easily identifiable to modem day
Antipodean female audiences, and yet still belong in a turn of the century storyline,
Campion needed to construct a character that was believeable, but also one that
delivered the strong message behind the film. This was done through the symbolic
removal of Ada's voice and through her physical features, her articles of clothing and
her surroundings.
Ada's muteness is central to the narrative. It symbolizes the exclusion of
women from the patriarchal dialogue. And yet, despite her physical absence of voice,
Ada's off-screen voice allows her to retain a position of power. Her off-screen voice,

although in a Scottish accent, remains clear and distinct allowing her to effectively
communicate with those around her. In Stella Dallas, Stella's voice is a signifier of her
class. In contrast, although Ada fails to speak in high English her clarity allows her to
be understood. She also always speaks calmly, as though she were not attached to the
confusion that surrounds her in the film. She remains in control.
Amy Lawrence in her text Echo & Narcissus explains that voice is gender
differentiated (9). The male with his Adam's apple and deeper voice is placed in a
position of power. This placement was used to great effect with the use of telephone
operators who were hired to re-emphasis the position of men as bosses. Men talk as
though they are big and women as though they are small. In the film this is not a
dilemma since we already realize that Ada is small. But her voice holds with it
confidence. She uses correct grammar, avoids slang and never curses, which places her
into a position of power. Traditionally in film, woman's voice has had a couple of
implications. In Blackmail (1929) and The Spiral Staircase (1946), for example,
women cannot talk, allowing a tragedy to take place. On the other hand in Notorious
(1946) and Sorry Wrong Number (1948) the women talk too much. But the lack or
excess of voice is not a problem. Kaplan claims "language is by definition 'male',
women who speak it are alienated from themselves" (qtd. in Lawrence 116) and "in
patriarchy the non-castrated woman exists only as a discursive position. A voice"
In acknowledging that only the audience can hear her biological voice, it is

important to consider how the characters surrounding her view her absence of voice.
Absence of voice, especially as a chosen absence, represented in Victorian times the
idea of insanity as a result of hysteria. Stella Bruzzi notes,
[Ada] is, in her refusal to speak, representative of what the medical
profession branded a 'hysterical' woman; catatonia, anorexia, chronic
fatigue and other forms of self-imposed sensory deprivation were
commonplace among dissatisfied and desperate Victorian wives" (236).
Hirsch writes that "maternal silence is equivalent to woman's anger" (171). However,
in choosing not to speak Ada has removed herself from the patriarchal dialogue that
she would traditionally be forced to communicate in. She recognizes that the voice of
woman is not heard within that dialogue and chooses to communicate using a different
method. This method is the piano. Few colonialists are able to hear this different sense
of voice that is outside of the societal definition. Central to the Piano's dialogue is
Baines's ability to hear Ada's voice, but Flora, the Maoris and the piano tuner also hear
Ada's voice.
Flora in her relationship with her mother participates in her piano voice. While
on the beach, she listens to her mother's playing of the piano. She also plays the piano
along with her mother when they return with Baines to the beach. Later, her mother
asks her to begin the piano lessons with Baines, signifying that she also possesses the
voice. But it is not Flora's voice that Baines is interested in. Flora's tie with the piano is
one of a pre-Oedipal stage. She does not yet recognize the power of the voice and as a
consequence is unable to use it properly herself or to recognize the influence it has on

other people. Although she hears it, she does not truly acknowledge it.
The Maoris also hear the piano. When carrying it through the forest the
warriors drop it and the piano's keys give out a crashing sound. The Maoris jump back
adopting fighting postures. Because they are partly outside of the colonial society they
are not constrained by the rigid forms of language that are defined within that society.
Later they play the piano after it is returned to Ada. This is an action which they go
out of their way to perform. It is perhaps significant on another level because it allows
Ada at that instant not to be raped and it permits her to be reminded of where her
voice is located. But perhaps the most telling point is when Flora delivers the piano
key to Stewart. After he has left, the Maoris pick up the key, pressing on it,
commenting "it's lost its voice it can't sing."
The blind piano tuner also hears the piano. Although he never hears Ada play
the piano he is able to tune the instrument's voice. Upon leaning over the keys with his
tuning fork he acknowledges that there is sand and salt within the piano. His handicap
allows him to communicate outside of the patriarchal dialogue and consequently he
too is able to recognize the significance of the piano. Being visually impaired his
participation in the patriarchal dialogue is restricted since, according to John Berger,
the dialogue of the visual contributes greatly to our conceptual analysis of our culture.
Therefore the piano tuner, like Ada, finds ways outside of the patriarchal dialogue to
The piano is not the only method through which Ada communicates. Luce

Irigaray notes that,"[woman] is neither one nor two" (qtd. in Fischer 203), and Gerard
Lenne sees woman as "a dual being" (qtd. in Fischer 192). In the same sense, there is
no single way in which woman communicates. Ada also communicates through her
eyes. When asking Baines to take her back to the beach, she waits outside his shack
and looks at him until he realizes that he cannot deny her wishes. Campion also uses
Ada's eyes to represent her longing for her voice. We are repeatedly shown her eyes
staring outwards from the screen in close-up shots revealing her need to be with her
These eyes are different from the eyes of women that Berger writes about
looking outwards as a need for acceptance and/or acknowledgement that their body
belongs to the male who gazes upon it (52). Instead these are eyes with depth and
immense sorrow. Finally, Ada's eyes communicate to Stewart her needs and desires.
By looking into her eyes Stewart is able to hear Ada's voice. He tells Baines that he
heard her in a point in the center of his forehead. It is through Ada's eyes that he is
finally allowed to hear her and to become the man who would understand.
The refusal of others to acknowledge Ada's voice places her in a position in
which she is ironically allowed to assume her multiple roles. I do not want to say that
denial of woman's voice is a good thing because it ultimately allows Ada the ability to
represent multiple personas. Instead it suggests that if patriarchal society forces the
woman's voice outside of their realm patriarchy will never be allowed to experience
woman in her entirety. Only those people who have not been socialized into the white

colonial society can acknowledge Ada's voice. In the same manner that Flora is
frightened at the church play and the Maoris react to the same scene by attacking the
apparition, only those who observe different dialogues and the truth of those dialogues
are allowed to acknowledge other forms of communication and thier serioiusness.
Baines observes Ada's depth, as represented in her piano playing and her eyes, whereas
Stewart is always isolated from her because he is unable to see who she truly is. He
does not see because he does not listen.
As well as her lack of verbal discourse, Ada is also restricted by her clothing.
Ada's clothes trap her. In her essay "Jane Campion: costume drama and reclaiming
women's past," Bruzzi refers to the symbolism of the Victorian clothing that represses
Ada's sexuality. She observes that clothes have traditionally "covered our nakedness
and hidden our shame" (236). The barricade between humanity and outside forces is
Ada's hoop dress. Holly Hunter, who plays Ada, observed that,
The costumes helped tremendously: the incongruity of having a woman
in a really laced-up corset, huge hoop skirts, petticoats, pantaloons,
bodice and chemise trying to gracefully maneuver her way through the
bush, was a real physical manifestation of Ada. That's what women of that
period dealt with, that's how they developed: there was an obvious
physical fragility and yet strength and stamina, as well as grace, were
required to wear those clothes. That was an interesting dichotomy that the
period offered me (Bilbrough 149).
As acknowledged by Holly Hunter, Ada learns the dichotomy of her clothing and it
not only hampers but benefits. In both Charlotte Bronte's Wuthering Heights and Mary
Shelley's Frankenstein the authors created metaphors which "externalised the internal

demons of their anger" (Bruzzi 236). The clothes that both Ada and the others wear
illustrate the repressive Victorian era in which the movie is set. When Ada and her
daughter are first abandoned on the beach by the sea captain she uses her hoop dress
as a tent to protect her daughter from the elements of nature. The images of Flora
sticking her head through the top of the hoop symbolize a return to the womb. Female
sexuality hides under the hoop dress and within these confines we first observe Ada
truly communicating to Flora when she tells her a night time story with which they
harmoniously communicate in sign and verbal language. This scene depicts the lull
before the storm, the period of time alone before Stewart appears. The next morning
when Stewart does appear, in his top hat and evening suit coat to greet his wife, in a
uniform representative of Victorian etiquette, or at least as much as can be summoned
after his long trek, he is out of place. He feels uncomfortable wakening Ada and Flora
because to do so requires him to talk to the hoop dress and to ultimately address what
is inside the female created tent.
The dress continues to act as a form of protection for Ada, not only from the
elements but also from the surrounding masculine environment. When Stewart
attempts to rape her in the bush the complexities of the dress prevent her from being
violated. He is unable to lift it above her waist so as to complete his desired action.
The dress becomes itself representative of female sexuality. Earlier when Ada rips the
lace of the wedding dress, Aunt Morag becomes most upset, informing Stewart of the
incident later on. This ripping of lace is only a preview of the manner in which Ada will

rip at the patriarchal definition of femininity.
This is not the first time that the dress has been represented as female sexuality
in Australian literature and cinema. Joan Lindsay's Picnic at Hanging Rock and Peter
Weir's cinematic production of the same text both use the dress as a symbol of
femininity. Bruzzi comments; "the [text] is built on mystery rather than the attainment
of female sexuality" (238). The dresses themselves become an instance of male desire
and voyeuristic tendencies. In the same manner that Stewart observes Ada's
pictograph, he sees the dress as one dimension of sexuality. In Picnic at Hanging Rock
(1975) one of the girls is found minus her corset. The subtraction of a piece of
clothing immediately suggests that lesbian activity has occurred between the three girls
who went missing. The dress itself becomes representative of the Victorian male's
"perception of intimacy as unobtainable, bewildering and fascinating" (238).
The hoop dress also impedes Ada's expression. Not only does it keep out the
unwanted, like a locked door, it restricts what is inside from coming out. Ada's
repressed sexuality is defined by her hoop dress that billows out from her waist
denying her castrated loins. Her smoothness of loin and consequent sexual potential is
eradicated by her dress which curves in the opposite direction to her natural bodily
form. This impediment is overcome by Baines, when Ada willingly makes love to him,
by the method in which he crawls under the hoop and hence places himself within the
bars of the hoop so as to perform sexually with her.
Campion does not allow the audience to quickly forget the hoop dress and its

significance. The jail form of the hoop dress cannot be easily discarded. When Ada
orders her piano to be thrown overboard to preserve the Maori war canoe's
equilibrium, she is, willingly, dragged over with it and her skirt billows outwards
acting as a form of entrapment to her release. It appears that Ada is trapped by her
skirt/defenses/society and will be defeated by her clothes' construction. But at the last
minute she releases herself and rises to the surface because, as the voice-over claims,
she has "chosen life." Her dress becomes the impediment to her upwards battle, her
ability to exist. The audience's final glimpse at the end of the film of Ada's hoop dress
rising above the piano signifies Ada's separation from the repression that previously
had been so central to her life.
The freedom away from the hoop dress is expressed in Flora's cartwheels that
are performed in her petticoats, minus her hoop, at the beginning and the end of the
film. The hoop dress and restrictive clothing are a part of Ada. As a symbol of
repression and of masculine views of female sexuality her dress does not allow her to
be defined as a human being but rather an object of male curiosity. Baines, who wears
the unconventional straw hat and displays his nudity openly, along with his sexually
candid conversations with the Maoris, allows Ada a guide to her removal of
repression. Perhaps one of the most telling scenes of the film is when Baines, fully
naked, lovingly polishes the Piano with a piece of clothing. Consequently the
relationship between voice, sexuality and clothing is expressed in its truest form.
Another important part of Ada's construction is not one of a barricade and/or

impediment to sexuality but an image that in itself represents the inherent female
sexuality apparent throughout the cinematic text. Fluidity symbolizes female sexuality.
The use of fluidity to represent female sexuality appears in many films such as Now,
Voyager and An Affair to Remember (1957) as well as Agnieszka Holland's Europa,
Europa (1991). In Agnieszka Holland's film Europa, Europa the opening sequence
depicts her hero Solomon swimming underwater in a Nazi uniform. This sequence
represents the blurring of boundaries between rigid masculine Nazism and female
In Campion's film the image of female sexuality through fluidity is expressed .
most prolifically. When we encounter Ada's voice for the second timeperhaps our
first true introduction to Ada's voice~the background is framed by the tempestuous
sea as the waves crash onto the remote beach. The air is full of moisture from the
spray of the waves. The sand soaks up the fluidity and the sky overhead is gray with
the threat of rain. Female voice and female sexuality are inextricably intertwined from
the very beginning of the cinematic text.
Mositure imagery continues. Stuart Dryburgh, director of photography,
explains, "part of the director's brief was that we would echo the film's element of
[being] underwater" (Bilbrough 141). The soil the characters walk through is
constantly muddy. But this soil is "virgin" colonial soil which, although it has a female
representation, it is a male possession. Ironically, moisture although good for the soil,
becomes damaging when there is too much, at least according to masculine

perceptions of the economic use of land. In the same manner the male perception of
the female is that sexuality is good but only within the confines of what they see as
controllable. Ada climbs through mud to approach Baines's hut, and Flora crosses mud
when she decides to tell Stewart about her mother's digressions. Finally Ada is
dragged downwards in ocean water before making her decision to return to life. In this
instance she is entrapped by sexuality and she is about to succumb to its power when
she realizes that sexuality need not be life condemning, but rather it should be a part of
life and so she returns to the surface.
Water represents female sexuality in all these instances, but there is one point
at which water becomes masculine. Rain is symbolic of Zeus, and it is through the
episodes of rain that masculine power is brought to bear and yet intermingled with
femininity. The best example of this is when Stewart descends from the sunlit
mountaintop with the axe. When he drags Ada out of the house it has begun to rain
and it this rain that illustrates the violent power that as a male he possesses. The rain
creates the mud that Ada collapses into holding her damaged hand. Beneath her is
femininity and above her is masculinity combined in violence and blood. She represents
the bridge between the two that must be crossed. The rain must wash off her to
become the mud beneath her. Rain is of course consistent throughout the text
reminding the audience of the masculine aspect of life that is always present and
concurrent with femininity. Neither one can be denied.
A final important image of female sexuality in the Piano is the use of the

rainforest vegetation. Traditionally, in texts from Australia and New Zealand (e.g.
Patrick White's "The Tree of Man" and Thea Astley's "Northern Belle"), the garden is
used as a representation of female sexuality. Campion acknowledges this metaphorical
use of vegetation. In talking with Miro Bilbrough she said, "the bush has got an
enchanted, complex, even frightening quality to it, unlike anything you see anywhere
else. It's mossy and very intimate, and there's an underwater look that's always
charmed me" (Bilbrough 139). Baines's home is surrounded by the tall, thick trunks of
the rainforest foliage whereas Stewart's home is surrounded out by the blacked out
stumps of cross-cut and burnt out trees12. Andrew McAlpine, the production designer,
noted in regards to Stewart's home, "I wanted the bride to be seen to be drawn into
this dank darkness that is Stewart's and then to step out into this green cathedral of
nikau and pungan that is Baines's life: a very gothic landscape surrounded by this cool
green light" (140). This image of phallic tree trunks can also be used to express male
sexuality. Stewart himself has a repressed, virginal sexuality whereas Baines appears
virile. This tree image is reiterated in the cinematic text when the Maori children and
Flora are caught kissing the tree trunks in imitation of Ada and Baines's encounters. Of
course, upon encountering Flora participating in such an activity, Stewart pulls her
aside and reprimands her for her actions and she accepts his right to do so and the
repression that goes along with it. The vegetation is not merely phallic because of the
trees. The vegetation filmed with a greenish/blue filter creates an underwater effect
and hence becomes like water itself. This watery image is contrasted to the vines that

Ada clings to in the rainforest attempted rape scene. The vines themselves are
constrictive, wrapping themselves around the trees and the underwater imagery.
Although suggestive of femininity, the vegetation contains within it masculinity. Both
are constricted. It is only in this area that the two intermingle without a boundary.
Ada's presence in her surroundings allows her to be portrayed as a trapped
woman in a culture in which she can observe aspects of herself, but she cannot
participate. She is, as a female, placed into a position similar to women's position
today. However, through Ada women are able to observe the struggle which they
must also undertake to be heard and to be truly recognized in their multiple roles
beyond the Hollywood stereotypes.

Probably there is nothing in human nature more resonant with charges
than the flow of energy between two biologically alike bodies, one of
which has lain in amniotic bliss inside the other, one of which has
labored to give birth to the other. The materials are here for the deepest
mutuality and the most painful estrangement.
-Adrienne Rich
The very attractiveness of feminism was that it provided an arena for
separation from oppressive closeness with the Mother; feminism was in
part a reaction against our mothers, who had tried to inculcate the
patriarchal feminine in us.
-E. Ann Kaplan
We always learned to expect sentences to have two parts, the second
seeming to contradict the first, the unity lying in our growing ability to
tolerate ambivalence for that is what motherly love is like.
-Jane Lazarre
One of the major themes in the Piano is motherhood. Ada differs from the
Hollywood single female who is either the sexually desirable "good girl" or the femme
fatale; instead, she is placed in the position of mother, caretaker and nurturer.
Hollywood cinema has created stereotypes for the role of motherhood, but Campion
conceives Ada as a woman who deviates from these roles and creates a definition of
motherhood alien to the Hollywood film. This chapter will consider the methods by
which Campion and hence Ada challenge the traditional Hollywood stereotypes of

In assuming multiple roles throughout the Piano, Ada transcends the
Hollywood stereotypes of motherhood. She assumes numerous roles of motherhood,
according to colonial societal standards, and her interaction with individuals
throughout the film reveals these roles. Her role of mother is ultimately dependent
upon economic viability. As a colonial possession performing her predefined roles, as
preferred by the pakehas befitting the Good Mother, she can be affirmed by those
around her. However, her interaction with Baines and the alternative culture of the
Polynesian Maoris allows a second form of identification to take place. She enters a
culture in which the colonial stereotypes do not fit and in which she can seek her own
identity. But ultimately this quest for identity is something that must happen outside
the masculine circle that even the Maori warriors inhabit, in order for the spectators to
understand her role as a woman in society. It must be noted that Ada has been
purchased on the premise of her sexuality even though she is not a virgin. She has not
been brought out to the New Zealand colonies by Stewart to be a mother. There is
never mention of additional children and/or family. Instead, Aunt Morag's
conversations with Stewart revolve around whether or not Ada has begun to perform
her marital duties14.
We are introduced to Ada and Flora in Ireland where we observe Ada playing
the piano for the first time. We also observe Ada removing the roller skates from her
sleeping daughter's feet. At this point in the text Ada is the Good Mother. She cares
for her child, even though the nurturing aspect of undressing her child after she has

gone to sleep creates ambiguity and can be symbolized as a removal of Flora's feminine
mobility, since she cuts the laces of the roller skates in order to remove them. Then
when she arrives on the remote New Zealand beach her status as Good Mother is
reconfirmed. This is signified by the way she covers her daughter with her own dress
hoop. Flora pokes her head through the top of the hoop and converses with her
mother in the same manner of a child returning to the warmth between the mother's
legs. The ultimate symbolic protection for the child is within the womb, and Flora's
head poking through the hoop signifies the head of a joey poking out of a kangaroo's
pouch, an important image of motherhood in Australia and New Zealand, if not
worldwide, as well as a mirror image of a baby's head emerging from the birth canal.
She thus becomes an Earth mother who gives birth to Flora if not Fauna. Ada and
Flora are going to experience a rebirth throughout the movie. Ada at this point has
both her voices, her daughter's oral voice and her piano musical voice.
From the very beginning Stewart is unable to recognize the importance of the
piano. It can be argued that at this stage he has never heard Ada play and therefore he
has never been allowed to hear her voice in this manner. But, regardless of this fact, he
ignores her requests to take the piano with them. Campion also suggests that in
marrying Ada he does not want her to speak, because "God loves dumb creatures, so
why not he [Stewart]?" Not only does this comment suggest that according to Stewart
Ada, as woman, is not something to be listened to, it also identifies Stewart with God
even if it is only in Stewart's misguided patriarchal perceptions. To Stewart, Ada is

merely an image, a photograph, a one-dimensional image, with which he can create his
own voyeuristic fantasies. She is the female on the Hollywood screen placed in such a
manner that the male viewer can observe from the confines of the darkened theater and
create sexual fantasies. Yet, at the same time Ada, as depicted on the screen in front of
the Piano's audience, is drab and lacks visual/voyeuristic sexuality.
Ada's position as Good Mother is limited because her communication with
those around her is restricted not only by her muteness but also by their lack of
receptivity. Stewart leaves, and she turns to Baines, the man who appears to have the
physical ability to take her back to the piano. She has nowhere else to turn. She takes
Flora with her to Baines's shack and then onto the beach. She plays the piano as Flora
dances on the sand, turning cartwheels, playing alongside her mother and eventually
creating a fantastical seahorse, an animal associated with mermaid sexuality, out of
sand, shells and pebbles on the beach. While this interaction is taking place between
mother and daughter, Baines wanders the beach listening to the piano and hearing
Ada's voice. He never talks. He only listens.
Upon acknowledging her voice Baines initially decides to use it to his
advantage. He approaches Stewart with the idea of a trade: land for the piano. Stewart
still does not recognize the significance of the piano even though upon returning from
his trip he encounters Ada playing/miming a piano on a set of painstakingly carved
keys on the kitchen table. Like the kitchen table, one of his possessions, the piano is
merely an accessory to the deal he made with Ada's father, so he willingly trades Ada's

voice for land. As a pakeha Stewart sees value in land, not woman's voice. Land can
be given an economic value, whereas woman's voice is, according to Stewart's
perceptions, valueless. Stewart refuses to acknowledge Ada's possession of the piano
despite her insistence and her written message, "The piano is mine. It's mine."
Since Ada's voice occurs on two levels, when her piano is acquired by Baines
the tie between daughter and mother is immediately affected. Ada needs to recover her
emotional voice, and it is at this point that the initial strain between mother and
daughter occurs because of Baines's conditions for regaining her voice. Perhaps in a
mother's best interest, or as the Heroic Mother figure, Ada forces her daughter's
exclusion from the lessons. Ada understands that her daughter cannot be included with
the bargain that she makes with Baines, but this denial of her daughter for her own
(partriarchally-defined) selfish act places her in a position of Bad Mother and Heroic
Mother simultaneously. Hirsch writes, "the goal is not to be selfless, [mothers] are
already that, it is to consider themselves in relation to others" (83). And so it is with
Ada and her relationship to Flora. She will negate her nurturing of her child in order
for a greater good to come of her actions. Ada submits to the agreement, even though
it suggests sexual deviance on Baines's behalf, so as to regain her piano and hence
regain her relationship with her daughter and also family, because this family tie,
although passionless, is defined as being correct by patriarchal society. But once the
piano lessons begin, Baines informs her, "I just want to listen." Baines does not want
to possess Ada's voice, but instead he wants to allow her to hear it and to hear it

himself. Baines reveals this by having the piano tuned, by a professional piano tuner
whom the audience assumes has to travel a fair distance to undertake his job, so that
the voice can be properly heard.
Initially Baines is confused about his role as listener. He uses the piano to
control Ada and to, as he calls it, gain her affection. He understands the importance of
the piano to Ada and even though he allows her to bargain with him he also uses the
piano as a tool to carry out his own voyeuristic fantasies about women. But the impact
of listening to the piano, and consequently Ada, has a profound effect on him. He
hears the piano even when Ada is no longer present, such is Ada's power to
communicate herself to him. Like a lover's voice in one's imagination, he cannot get
the music out of his mind. In an act of affection he polishes the piano whilst naked
with his clothes. He strokes the mahogany and confers his affection upon it. But he
still continues to use the piano as a tool in his bargain with Ada.
The church play is a turning point for Baines's feelings for Ada. He has begun
to recognize his affection for her but she wants no part of him. She rightly sees herself
as a victim of Baines's bargain. Despite the fact she has been given the ability to barter
in the masculine economic world, her tools for bartering affect her emotionally,
causing distress. She has to submit to sexual advances so that she may regain what is
rightfully hers and has been wrongfully removed from her in the first place. The
interaction between Baines and Ada at the church play allows Baines to realize the
dehumanizing position in which he has placed Ada. Ada reveals her distress by

assuming the role of Good Mother being a good wife to her husband, holding his hand,
and allowing her daughter to sit on her lap when the play progresses. As a
consequence, Baines realizes that he, as the outsider, can take up the task of setting
Ada free. He understands her predicament and recognizes that he must return the
piano to her...not to Stewart. Of course, at the same time, Stewart sees the return of
the piano as a reneging on a deal since he cannot see beyond the economic situation.
When the piano is returned to her, Ada recognizes the fact that a male, other
than her husband, has given her back her voice. Baines bargains with Ada, not with her
husband or father, and she earns her piano back by keeping the bargain. At this point
she undergoes a transition from the passive to the active mother. No longer will Ada
allow herself to be a victim.
Ada, as a victim of patriarchy, reverses her dehumanized position by refusing
the role of patriarchally defined Good/Heroic Mother and allows herself to experience
her own sexuality. She now assumes the role of Bad Mother. Ada acknowledges her
position and hence refutes the passive role in order to assume the active one. Her
interaction with Baines places her in a dominant position. As they make love she is
placed on the right of the screen and particularly as he performs cunninglingus she is
higher than he is visually on the screen. But in a European patriarchal discourse the
move from passive into active via an exploration of sexual libido without romantic
attachment (Bilbrough 7) requires a punishment for the transgression. This punishment
is initiated by Flora who informs Stewart of her mother's dalliances with Baines. The

daughter turns because of her separation from the mother figure. Dorothy Dinnerstein
believes "the only childhood experience is one of total dependency on a Mother (good
when present, bad when absent)" (qtd. in Kaplan 127). This childhood experience
places Flora into a dilemma as she realizes the absence of her mother, and since the
mother is absent she seeks the company of her father. The acknowledgement of her
mother's sexual activities appears to have little effect on Flora except for curiosity and
imitation, which the Maori women observe in regards to the children's game with the
trees. However, the trees themselves are symbolic of the tree of knowledge. Flora has
begun to recognize the difference between the phallus shaped tree and her female lack
of power. Hence, she holds the tree and kisses "the phallus". Flora may not recognize
the significance of her game but she does recognize her exclusion from her mother.
She is constantly screaming at her mother "I don't want to be outside."
When Ada is in the role of Hollywood Bad Mother, Flora embraces the father
figure as a family tie that is stronger than the tie with mother. Hirsch notes, "whilst
mother is retissima the child exalts the father" (55). As Stewart hammers planks across
the windows to enclose his possession indoors, Flora gives him instructions and calls
out to him, "here Papa," the term Flora told her mother she was not going to use.
Flora is using Stewart to regain her mother. She wears her angel wings, as a symbol of
purity and goodness, while assisting her father and subsequently telling her mother,
"You shouldn't have gone up there, should you? we can play cards if you like." But
Flora is placed in a dilemma. The camera does a close-up shot of her face, showing her

confusion when her mother turns away and refuses to acknowledge her. Perhaps
turning to the phallus was not such a good idea after all.
While confined in the house, a prison within her prison of the patriarchal
culture, Ada removes herself from all the roles of motherhood and becomes the sexual
woman. She turns to Stewart in an attempt to illustrate to him what it is she feels. By
stroking his naked form and sexually arousing him, while at the same time refusing him
the ability to respond, she is revealing to him the way she feels as a woman when a
man strokes her and refuses to acknowledge her reciprocity. Ada is sexual, but at this
stage she is not willing to share her sexuality with her husband. The gender sexual
roles are reversed and Stewart is now imprisoned in his role of man. He finally begins
to hear Ada's voice as she plays the piano. Consequently the barricades must come
When the wooden planks are removed from the windows Flora races outside
to play in the yard. She has been returned to a position of respect for the phallus as she
realizes the control it has over her. However, despite the belief that Ada has returned
to her position of Good Mother, as Stewart defines it, Ada desires the man who is
willing to listen and so she sends Flora with a piano key, a part of Ada's voice, with a
painstakingly inscribed message announcing her love to George Baines. Flora takes the
key, wearing the angel wings, for her mother, but at the fork of the planks she steps
tentatively in the fluid-engorged soil and takes the other path, the path that leads to her
legal father. Flora, struggling with the traumatic Oedipal relationship, delivers the key

instead to Stewart. But as a contradiction to this act she sings a song about the Duke
of York marching his men up the hill and back down again. She is singing about male
games and follies and the insignificance of the patriarchal system.
Even though it is Flora who delivers the message, it is Stewart who delivers
the crippling blow. Ironically, his position of power is confused at this point since he
cinematically moves left to right on the screen but he moves from a higher to a lower
point. He fails to identify with his wife and rages because he feels he must protect his
mana (honor, prestige). With the background of a sexually enchanting and engorged
bush landscape (Bilbrough 139) Stewart condemns Ada for her actions. The
transgression is punished but the future of Ada is left hanging. Tania Modleski writes,
"power in women produces an enormous rage in men but since their need for us is
equally powerful, they bury their anger" (60). Ada has attempted to liberate her voice,
her humanity, and her sexuality which is bom through mutuality and not patriarchal
ownership (Althofer 340). Stewart "castrates" Ada by chopping off her finger, her
biological tool for communicating through her piano, which removes her adult voice.
But this act of castration cannot remove any of her spirit because, as defined by the
patriarchal culture, she was bom castrated. She has already denied the order that
demands her castration by refusing to participate in the patriarchal discourse. In the
same scene Flora is bloodied for the first time15 and she realizes that the power of the
phallus is the power to condemn. Ada passes through all the stages of patriarchal
definitions of mother, and becomes multiple, transcending all stereotypes of what she

is expected to be.
Stewart is entrapped in a nightmare from which he cannot escape, and it is not
until he recognizes his own embodiment of patriarchy that he can allow himself to
reject its values. As he attempts to rape Ada, he hesitates, and hears her voice. Later
he tells Baines that Ada has told him "try to save her, let her go." The dialogue of what
he hears allows the audience to know that it is his own mind speaking to him and not
Ada since Ada is referred to in the second person. And let her go he must, but this
merely releases Ada from her legal patriarchal ties. Stewart realizes that she is outside
of the realm of patriarchal colonial ownership, that he no longer owns her, and that she
must be allowed to lead her own life. However, she has not yet been removed from her
emotional ties with patriarchy. While heading south to Nelson she allows herself to
break her bond with her voice. She tells her daughter to throw the piano overboard
because it is spoilt. But as it sinks downwards into the ocean she deliberately places
her foot in the coiled rope and is dragged overboard. She is not yet able to give up the
voice so easily. Initially she peacefully sinks with the piano, but as the close-up
underwater shots reveal, she realizes that she must return to the land of the living and
so she breaks her bond, severs the umbilical cord and returns to the surface, signifying
a rebirth from the oceanic womb. She re-emerges from the pre-Oedipal ocean stage of
her life. But as she rises to the surface she recites "what a death, what a chance, what a
surprise," because it is indeed a surprise to realize that she can be released from the
patriarchy that forces her to speak through her piano. By returning to the fluidity of

the mother's womb she is able to remove the impediment to her communication,
allowing her to leave her piano behind, and emerge with the ability and want to
communicate verbally once again. Finally she is free!
The epilogue allows a cinematic departure from Ada with an embellishment of
everything that she sought to achieve. She retains her maternal connection with her
new piano (Bruzzi 342), is involved in a relationship of equality with Baines and is
undergoing the process of regaining her articulation through verbal means because, as
Hirsch notes; "to remain speechless is impossible" (154). She becomes simultaneously
an embodiment of all the definitions of motherhood.. She is multiple in a single form.
But the piano is not forgotten. It sits at the bottom of the ocean with Ada's symbolic
body floating above it. Because like her child, the piano her voice was bom from
within her, the bond with the piano is still strong. Woman's voice has been freed but it
is still inextricably linked with her at the bottom of the ocean. Woman has "taught the
man to lay down the ax and listen, touch, and see" (Althofer 342). Ada will always be
a mother, a daughter and a lover16.
The ending of the Piano allows the audience to recognize that such a life has
an alternative but Ada as a woman has chosen no longer to participate in the
phallocentric society. Perhaps she realizes that in returning to "civilization" she will be
placed in a diminutive role once again. Perhaps she realizes that, like Flora's fantasies
about her biological father, she too has been burnt up, not by lightning, but by the
destructiveness of men. Perhaps she realizes that she will never truly be free and

decides to allow herself and her ruined voice, the piano, to remain at the depths of the
ocean where no male can ever violate their relationship again.
By the end of the film, Ada has assumed all the roles of Motherhood and
progresses beyond the stereotypes. She is allowed her sexuality and her maternal
instincts. She is allowed her lover and her child. She is finally able to transcend the
pre-defined roles that have come before her. In the same manner, the independent
making of the Piano has allowed it to be outside the realm of the Hollywood
Mainstream productions. The feminine influences of a female written script, female
directed film and female produced feature removed the traditional masculine
constraints of the piece17. Finally, women are allowed to acknowledge the multiple
roles that they can assume instead of the one-dimensional positions that Hollywood

I'm not going to call him Papa, I'm not going to call him anything. I'm
not even going to look at him. Flora
- the Piano (1993)
In the Oedipus myth, the son murders his father in order to replace him.
Contrastingly, in the new womans myth, the daughter kills her mother in
order not to have to take her place.
- Judith Gardiner
The daughters never were
true brides of the father
the daughters were to begin with
brides of the mother
- Adrienne Rich (excerpt from Sibling Mysteries,)
Classical Hollywood maternal melodramas are predominantly about adult and
adolescent daughters attempting to separate themselves and/or to refigure their
relationship with their mothers. Jane Campion, on the other hand, takes us to a
previous time of development known as the Oedipal phase to explore the mother-
daughter relationship and the manner in which it is affected previous to puberty and
the gaining of true sexuality. She also rejects the traditional myth of role passage,
where the man must overcome female obstacles (Fischer 46), and instead reverses the
sexual struggle. Feminist critics often refer to the Oedipal phase in Hollywood cinema
but rarely does the screen depict a relationship involving the Oedipal phase.

the Piano plays on many of the themes that are apparent in the Classical
Hollywood films and yet at the same time argues against many of them as well. In
Campion's cinematic text the male figures are peripheral characters when it comes to
the relationship between mother and daughter and despite the fact that Ada might seek
solace in Baines and Flora might seek the father figure in Stewart, the two figures,
instead of causing the separation of mother and daughter, create a stronger bond
between the two, allowing the daughter to return to the mother in a comfortable
The closeness of mother and daughter is the first relationship we encounter in
the film's narrative. In the beginning of the cinematic narrative we first observe Ada
and then we observe Flora. We know that they are emotionally close through the
identical dress, hairstyles and the manner in which Flora looks at her mother as well as
Flora's imitation of her mother's moods when communicating. Flora is like the
shortened shadow that appears under the midday sun. Perhaps the most important
signifier of their closeness is Flora's role as communicator to the outside world on
behalf of Ada. When Ada and Flora are deposited on the lonely cliff-surrounded beach
the Captain addresses Flora and not the mother. He recognizes the barricade that Flora
assumes in defense of her mother from the outside world. In a sense she is the filter
through which the hegemonic culture is experienced by Ada. It is also through Flora
that Ada is allowed to tell her story. Despite the age difference the film suggests an
equality between the two characters.

There is an inherent bond within Ada and Flora's barricade relationship since
Ada will not participate in, on one level because of elective muteness, the patriarchal
dialogue. Fischer notes that patriarchal culture renders women mute (10). Through the
act of removing Ada's voice, Campion forces the audience to recognize this aspect of
the female experience. It is only through the decision to communicate via the
biological tie between herself and her daughter that Ada can participate in the verbal
discourse of the community that surrounds her. However, this relationship of
daughter-voice necessarily creates a stronger spiritual tie between Ada and Flora. They
assume the role of Siamese twins with only one having access to the mouth. This
Siamese twin relationship can be equated with the pre-Oedipal where Flora's libidinal
activity is directed towards Ada and her adult heterosexuality has yet to be explained
to her (Rubin 186). The mother's relationship to the daughter pre-dates the daughter's
access to language and hence the tie is stronger than the other ties that surround her.
As Bilbrough notes, this relationship is of a mirror-like closeness with a symbiotic
nature (145). In a sense it resembles the Lacanian mirror where the child's self-image is
proof of an individual identity (Fischer 76). Andrew McAlpine reiterates this
observation by describing; "the complicity between Ada and Flora is frightening, like a
Diane Arbus photograph. Beautiful too, because it's so tender" (Bilbrough 153).
Because of this Siamese twin predicament the bond between mother and daughter is
strengthened, creating a biological family, of a nurturing nature, within the legal
family of Ada, Flora and Stewart.

Outside of the mother and daughter relationship other characters vie for the
two's attention. In assuming the role of mother, Ada enters a conflict with the father
for identification with the child. The biological father assumes the role of favored
parent due to the Oedipal complex conflict. But in the case of Ada and Flora the
biological father has been removed from the equation. Flora has not been tempted by
the patriarchal promise of what psychoanalysis calls the power of the phallus and
instead has remained in a close relationship with her mother. As a daughter without a
father and/or brothers Flora is isolated from the influence of the phallus. However,
even though Ada's role as mother is not affected at the beginning of the film, the
introduction of Stewart into the family equation causes an Oedipal conflict.
The relationship between mother and daughter is indeed one that carries many
emotional scars. The daughter seeks the mother but when Ada turns to Baines, Flora
seeks the power inherent with the patriarchal phallus. This tears Flora between the idea
of fondness of the mother and the masculine perception that the only good mother is
one that is absent emotionally from the relationship; denying the maternal enables the
male to circumvent the uncertainty of paternity (Hirsch 32). Once Flora is subjected to
the position of daughter in the family relationship she experiences the Oedipal
complex. Her relationship with her mother is broken and she, like Ada, must explore
her role in the relationship until she can recognize her position within this family.
The sub-text of Aunt Morag's relationship with her daughter Nellie mirrors the
relationship of Ada and Flora. Upon addressing Stewart, Nellie echoes the comments

of her mother. This is the same interaction that occurs between Ada and Flora except
that both forms of communication between Nellie and Aunt Morag are verbal whereas
Ada and Flora's communication is double tiered. At the same time it is interesting to
note that Nellie exists within the realm of her mother and is also a mirror image of
Aunt Morag, merely a younger version. The cinematic text conveys a feeling that Aunt
Morag has never undergone the exploration of sexuality that Ada attempts and it is
this that helps shape her patriarchal character.
Stewart's role in the patriarchally defined family relationship forces him to
interact with Flora. Stewart possesses Ada. He never buys Flora. She is not his
accoutrement. In fact he never truly acknowledges her. On the beach he asks Baines
for his impression of Ada but Flora remains unmentioned. She is merely a piece of side
luggage that came with the cargo. She is like the bench that goes with the piano, a part
of the piano but a piece that could seemingly be left behind. It is because of this
position of non-ownership that Flora is allowed to assume the role of daughter.
Initially this role is refused by Flora who on the beach, alone with her mother, informs
Ada that she has decided that she will not call Stewart "Papa." But it is a role that is
easily adopted when the time comes. The absence of her mother when Flora is
excluded from the piano lessons and her observation of the primal scene--Ada and
Baines making love for the first timecauses Flora to fully feel her separation from her
mother and turn to Stewart. When turned away by her mother, we witness her walking
down the hill from Baines's shack cursing with her fists clenched, and when Stewart

inquires as to the whereabouts of her mother she tells him "hell," which is perhaps the
place she romantically envisions her biological fictional father to be.
Flora understands the true identity of her biological father (her mother's piano
teacher). She asks her mother to recite the story to her, one that has been recited many
times. But she informs Aunt Morag and Nellie earlier on in the film that her father was
a great conductor who was burnt up because of his inability to hear the lightning and
thunder since he was consumed by the passion of singing with her mother. Ada's story
of the father is that he left because he stopped listening. Flora is seeking a father
figure, hence she creates romantic visions of a father, but inherent within these visions
is a damning effect for the father. Hirsch believes that the child replaces her/his parents
with more noble figures. The Monty Pythonesque touch of the cartoon-like figure of
her fantasy father burning to a char creates an absurdist touch to the dialogue. Not
only does it allow the audience to recognize the preposterous nature of the story, it
also symbolizes on a different level Flora's separation at that time from patriarchal
parenthood. Flora sees the father as a damned figure who, although she claims it was
in a fit of passion, will be incinerated because of his inability to hear woman's voice.
This identification of father as damned overturns when Flora is separated from
her mother. Flora senses a need to be loyal to family and obedient to the state (Hirsch
33). She sees Stewart as a way to reunite herself with her mother. It is in this role that
Flora recognizes him as being her father and initiates the respect that is a consequence
of Oedipalization. She recognizes his power as the symbolic phallus figure and believes

in her family ties with him. Stewart and Flora become a pair struggling to deal with
Oedipal trauma (Althofer 342).
Ada, as the mother, never emotionally belongs to Stewart. The physical
purchase of Ada symbolises the ownership of mother. Flora is placed into a dilemma as
to who to identify with. She is denied by her mother who seeks solace with Baines
(this is not necessarily a bad thing since, according to Oedipal dynamics, the mother
needs to err so that the daughter can be saved (Hirsch 55)). Flora is never emotionally
attached to Baines, and therefore is forbidden the ability to seek the phallus through
him. Instead she recognizes the power inherent within Stewart that will reunite her
with her mother. She turns to Stewart out of narcissistic mortification (Chodorow 42).
With her mother absent she confides in Stewart her knowledge of her mother's
dalliances, allowing Stewart to return her mother to her. Flora, as Hirsch describes the
relationship, needs to be loyal to family and obedient to state (33). Hirsch also
acknowledges that the daughter will confide in the male fraternal figure she has chosen
as a substitute (70). She recognizes that the phallus is indispensable for the possession
of the mother because only those who possess the phallus have a right to a woman.
Stewart lacks a son and therefore is unable to pass the phallus onto male
offspring. At the same time he never truly imbues Flora with the phallus since he
considers the complicity between mother and daughter to be sanctified. He allows the
bond to remain and never attempts to steal Flora's affections away from her mother,
despite the fact that Flora seeks his power. Her attempts to paticipate in phallus power

are symbolized when she assists Stewart in chopping firewooda foreshadowing of
the symbolic castration and in her assisting Stewart in confining her mother in the
house, particularly when she calls him Papa.
The symbolism of the phallus is also represented in Flora's angel wings. The
angel wings are symbolic of religious affiliation and/or female relationship to the
patriarchal society. The church in the Victorian era was an extremely patriarchal
institution. The angel wings are first introduced to the film by Aunt Morag and Nellie
and in the same scene the minister illustrates axe chopping to Stewart. The angel
wings are adopted by Flora as a piece of dress-up clothing. Not only are they used in
the church play as a symbol of the church but they are also a reflexive symbol of
Flora's relationship to the patriarchal society. The wings are only worn by Flora when
she identifies with the hegemonic culture. When Stewart boards up the house, when
she is released by Stewart to play in the yard and when she delivers the piano key to
Stewart, Flora assumes her role of angel. The angel itself, although biblically male in
most instances, is often depicted in religious art as female. It suggests a female
affiliation with the church but still reinforces the idea that God is masculine: the son is
masculine but the messengers/ servants are femaleor pre-pubescent ("feminine") boys.
Finally, the audience is allowed one last glimpse of the angel wings as Flora washes
them before she leaves with her mother and Baines. The angel wings are in a sense
cleansed of the environment in which they have existed and Flora is allowed to move
onwards with her personal development.

Despite Flora's attempts to attain Stewart's affections she remains powerless.
When she seeks Stewart with the piano key she is once again seeking his affection; she
assumes the role of Electra to Stewart's Orestes. But his reaction to her delivery
merely reminds her of the terrifying power of the phallus that Stewart possesses.
Stewart's reaction reaffirms the fact that to seek the phallus means for the patriarchal
culture a denial of mother since males split women into mothers, sisters and daughters
(Chodorow 22). Ironically, it is Stewart who enables Flora to begin the seeking of the
phallus by sending her, with her mother's finger, to Baines.
This is the first time that Baines even appears to truly acknowledge her
presence. Flora finds security in Baines' presence and when Stewart comes visiting in
the middle of the night Flora is observed sharing the bed with Baines. Baines, unlike
Stewart, allows Flora to retain attached to her mother. Flora adds the love of father,
another man to the love of mother. In the same manner that Persephone is tom from
but maintains her affections for her mother (10), Flora returns to her mother via

That which does not destroy us makes us stronger.
-Friedrich Nietzche
She said, T have to go, let me go, let Baines take me away, let him try
and save me. I am frightened of my will, of what it might do, it is so
strange and strong.' Stewart
- the Piano (1993)
He aha te pononga o te whenuapena khore he pu hei pupuri? [subtitled:
What is the point of owning our land if we have no guns to hold it?]
- Unidentified Maori
- the Piano (1993)
Even though Baines and Stewart appear to be pitted against one another in
their competition for the affections of Ada, they do not assume the roles of protagonist
versus antagonist. It takes Ada to convince both of them to listen to her voice and
become the men-who-could-understand.
The relationship between Ada and Stewart is patriarchally defined. Stewart, as
the husband, assumes a role of spouse and secondarily of step-father to Flora. He is
the patriarchal figure who not only trades his wife's voice, the piano, to another man
for non-marsh land, but also possesses a wife through a financial transaction between
husband and father. This is not a marriage based on attraction, but rather on purely
economic reasons. Stewart's initial failure to acknowledge the tie between Ada and her

piano follows from this economy. Stewart is a pakeha, white colonial New Zealander,
who does not recognize the piano as his wife's voice. His ideals are monetarily
motivated, conservative and capitalistic18. However, Stewart is not the pure antagonist
of the story. As the representative of the pakeha culture, he is the barrier that must be
overcome, and in ultimately hearing Ada he does become the man-who-would-
As a pakeha Stewart sees women as possessions and/or objects. He purchases
Ada from her father, presumably at a bargain price since she is mute. Ada is similar to
a product from a catalogue who is bought from a mere photograph that Stewart is
allowed to observe halfway around the world. Looking upon her framed photograph,
his gaze is the active one which initially allows him to view Ada while she is unable to
look back (Mulvey 31). Peering at Ada's one dimensional face in a longing manner, as
he traverses the steep densely forested hills towards the beach where Ada is waiting,
he views her in private. Voyeurism, according to Fischer, is a primary means of male
possession of the female (29). The photograph is like the cinema which allows the
male to assume a voyeuristic role but denies female subjectivity. The female screen
object, like Ada, is observed by the male spectator, in the context of psychoanalytic
criticism, as a one dimensional and lacking character.
As an active member of the Victorian culture, Stewart has incorporated the
gender system that is set up within the social code. The female is seen as inferior to the
male; it is his role to control the female. Within this code there is a division of labor

that allows both genders to recognize their roles-Ada's role is that of mother and
housekeeper (even though we never observe her doing housework), and dutiful,
obedient wife. Stewart, on the other hand, is the controller of finances. He leaves Ada
alone in the New Zealand jungle to undergo business trips. We observe him
undertaking financial transactions with the Maoris and Baines. This division of labor
reinforces the hierarchal scheme of sexual identity. It also reflects, according to Rubin,
"a taboo: a taboo against the sameness of men and women" (178). It reinforces
Stewart's role as the possessor and Ada's role as the possessed.
Still, Ada needs to communicate with him. As Beth Althofer observes, Stewart
is the other, not part of self, that must be communicated to and must be forced to hear
the woman's voice (341). He is what Hirsch terms, "the man-who-would-understand"
(Hirsch 37). Stewart's relationship with Ada is never a romantic attachment; instead he
is representative of an establishment that relegates the female to a dehumanized role.
This gender positioning is particularly intensified in pakeha culture. But to see Stewart
as a one dimensional caricature is a faulty view. According to Sam Neill, the actor who
plays Stewart, he is not necessarily the evil antagonist of the film but rather a confused
person (Bilbrough 147). As a participant in the pakeha culture, he takes his male
dominance for granted yet he is trapped in his role as patriarch19.
Stewart is a lonely man who has travelled halfway around the world to settle
in a little known land and to carve out a niche in his life. Because of the severe lack of
females within the colony, he must acquire a wife by buying her. In the early stages of

Australian and New Zealand history a great deal of credit is given to those people who
organized the immigration of women to the colonies. In fact, Caroline Chisholm, who
organized the importing of wives for the Australian males, had a place of prominence
on the five dollar note in Australia for thirty years. In his interview with Bilbrough
about his role as Stewart, Sam Neill says:
I remember meeting Jane at the Berlin Film Festival and saying, "of course
I think of Stewart as being an archetypal pakeha New Zealand male,
greedy for land and so on." And Jane was very surprised, she by no means
saw Stewart as the villain of the piece...
I [Sam Neill] see Stewart as being someone who is rather vulnerable.
There are certain sad things about him: loneliness. What happens to him,
I think, is that this shell a carapace that Victorian men could assume- is
cracked and disintegrated by the power of his feelings for Ada, leaving
him very exposed. I think of him as being a man who has lost all his skin
(Bilbrough 147).
Stewart is a pakeha but Campion creates more depth and understanding for the
character than a mere stereotype could claim. Although he unquestioningly accepts his
role as pakeha, the role confuses him. Ironically, Stewart receives advice on how to
approach Ada from Aunt Morag (who identifies with patriarchal values even more
than he does). Except for Baines and the Maoris there appears to be no other
significant male visitors to Stewart's hut. Indeed, the only visitors of the pakeha
culture to Stewart's shack are Aunt Morag and Nellie with their Maori protege in tow.
This role of the Aunt is very important in Campion's story because it suggests the
power that women possess in New Zealand colonial society.20 Morag also typifies how
women in a sense have betrayed other females like Ada by using their own positions of

dominance to reinforce conformity to the hegemonic culture. Maternal figures to
whom Stewart turns for assistance are also the mothers who betray their daughters.
On the other hand, Ada may seem to betray her daughter, according to patriarchal
culture, yet in the end regains her daughter without bequeathing her a legacy of
subservience. Nellie, the daughter of Aunt Morag, is satirized for turning to a role of
submissiveness and under her mother's tutelage submits to the girlish, naive stereotype
in order to attract the right male. The ridiculousness of her persona, the physically
unattractive and awkward female who attempts to be sprightly makes her a character
to be laughed at.
Stewart's position also contains elements of victimization. According to
Campion, since he is a colonial pakeha, he is untrained in the role of courtship, and
hence the concepts of sexual jealousy and identity become transforming in nature to
him (137). He is a victim of his socialization. It is important to note that even though
Stewart is a participant in the patriarchal culture he is also outside of its realms. He
initially lives alone in a shack in the forest. He works alongside Baines clear-cutting
the area to make it economically viable. His is an understanding of a culture as a single
male who has never had sexual interactions with females. Unsure of his sexuality, his
virginal nature causes him to erupt in anger as he is forced to deal with his wife's
societal digressions. But his act of voyeurism, and the symbolism of the dog licking his
hand as a form of masturbation while Baines performs cunnilingus on Ada, reveals his
inexperience and insecurities about himself. He is lost within the realm of the culture

and although he has been instructed in his role as the possessor of Ada he understands
that she is not an object. Yet Stewart is required to be the possessor. Everything that
Stewart understands as being socially correct is overturned by Ada's actions.
Stewart is unable to cope with his wife's actions. His response to his wife's
activities is to barricade her into the house, in the way that you would tie up a
wandering dog. This action forces Ada to reassess her position within the society and
her relationship with Stewart. She forces Stewart to recognize the position that he has
placed her in. Her interactions with Stewart as she strokes him, and her refusal to
allow him to touch her back, places her in a position of power, one that constitutes a
reversal of traditional gender power relationships. Ada lets Stewart feel what it is like
to be touched and fondled but not be allowed to respond to one's own sexual urges.
Jane Campion commented on this scene, "Ada actually uses her husband as a sexual
object this is the outrageous morality of the film which seems very innocent but in
fact has its power to be very surprising" (138). Even though the initial medium shot of
Ada in this scene suggests a longing in her eyes, this longing is not for Stewart; instead
it is for Baines and/or understanding of who she is. She comprehends Stewart more
than he can understand himself, because she has had her voice, her sexuality and her
humanity restored to her by Baines. Stewart realizes that there is more to sexual
contact than "sneaking glimpses, frustrated brutality and being touched" (Bruzzi 138).
Stewart begins to hear Ada's voice and to become the man who would
understand. He hears Ada's voice when she plays the piano during a visit by Aunt

Morag and Nellie. The eyes of the female patriarchs seem clouded with
misunderstanding and on their trip home from Stewart's house, Aunt Morag, while
doing her toiletries in the woods, comments; "she does not play the piano like we
do...[because] have a sound creep inside you is not at all pleasant." The patriarchal
women hear the voice. It is a voice that reminds them of their own sexuality, but this
sexuality conflicts with their role in the culture and leaves nothing but confusion in
their minds. Yet we see understanding when the camera slowly zooms in on Stewart's
eyeshe has finally begun to listen. This is only the beginning of his understanding and
he has a long way to go. However, this understanding does allow him to recognize the
longing within Ada and as a consequence he removes the barricades that restrict her.
Ironically, Aunt Morag, who reflects patriarchal culture, does not understand the
dynamics of the situation when she says Stewart has set up the barricades incorrectly.
According to her, the Maori will quite easily be able to enter the premises since the
barricade is outside the door. She understands the threat to be from the outside.
Instead, it is from within the culture. And yet despite Stewart's realization and his
release of Ada from his house, her turning to Baines infuriates him to the point of
violent retaliation.
The symbolic castration is consequence of the predefined paradigm Stewart
has interiorized. When the barricades come down, Ada seeks Baines and not Stewart,
which sends Stewart into a furious rage. He descends from the mountain and
symbolically castrates Ada's finger across the chopping block. It is this extremely

violent action that creates a sense of revulsion in the audience's mind and delivers not
only the blow to Ada but also to Stewart's persona. He now seems completely
villainousness. However, this is merely the third act of the tragedy. For the audience to
condemn him without hope of redemption at this point is to condemn the female to the
submissive position, and to condemn Stewart indefinitely is also to allow him to
remain in the position of power. His identity is not stable from this moment onwards.
It continues to change. If Ada were to give up her struggle and accept her designated
role at this point it would result in a failure of selfhood.
To understand Stewart's action is to consider Stewart as a participant in a
social paradigm. Stewart's sparse interactions with his own people, the fellow pakehas
in greater numbers, is revealed only once in the text of the film and that is at the
church play. The church play's text follows the tale of a curious wife who enters her
husband's, Blue Beard's, secret room only to find the previous wive's heads with blood
dripping down the wall. Bluebeard, upon discovering her, announces that he will have
to behead her for disobeying. Ironically, the Maoris are the only ones who protest this
action while the pakehas watch the event taking place. Previous to this we observe the
symbolic chopping of the finger when the minister demonstrates the shadow play by
chopping Nellie's hand. Thus, the communal play provides Stewart his only guideline
of how to treat a wife who is unfaithful21.
Ada's drive is to overcome the-man-who-could-understand syndrome and
reach a point where the man does understand. To be a female and removed from the

discourse of the patriarchal community means there is a seeking for voice. In the same
manner that the Piano itself, as a text, is woman's voice addressing the dominant
culture, Stewart must be forced to hear Ada's voice. He does hear it, finally, when he
attempts to rape Ada for the second time. He encounters woman's voice and realizes
that he is out of place. The female voice is finally allowed to penetrate the male psyche
and he is confused about what he hears. He allows Ada to go. Unlike the husband who
continually batters, he recognizes his errors and is able, through Ada's guidance, to
look within himself and understand the true consequence of his actions. He has finally
become the man who understands.
Outside the family triangle there exists a love triangle. The family triangle
consists of Ada, Stewart and Flora, whereas the love triangle consists of Ada, Flora
and Baines. Baines's face boasts a moko (a Maori facial tattoo) that allows him to be
defined as neither pakeha or Maori. He assumes a role between the two cultures. This
dichotomous role allows Peini (Baines' Maori name) to liberate Ada's voice. He is
excluded from the patriarchal society and therefore lacks the deafness that imbues
those like Stewart who are unable to hear. He is also unable to read, which forces him
to acknowledge other ways in which to communicate. From the very first time he
hears Ada play the piano framed against a tempestuous sea, he hears her voice, her
sexuality and her humanity.
Baines, unlike Stewart, receives his advice not from Aunt Morag and her
colonial etiquette but from the Maori women who acknowledge his sexuality and his